The fear seemed almost palpable in a fundraising letter from U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich’s campaign last week.
“The right-wing GOP forces are gathering in New Mexico to take on Martin, and we need to be prepared for anything,” the letter read. “Our deep-pocketed GOP opponent has tripled his fundraising, and now he’s employed Ted Cruz’s right-wing strategist to help flip our state red.”
Heinrich’s only announced Republican opponent — Albuquerque construction contractor and political newcomer Mick Rich — isn’t well-known. And, according to campaign reports of Sept. 30, not particularly well-funded, either. He has raised $186,595 in contributions and has $170,000 in personal loans.
The incumbent, by comparison, has a war chest of $3.6 million.
So far, no high-profile Republican is challenging Heinrich. And the 2018 Senate race isn’t the only one in which the GOP seems to be struggling to field candidates. Many statewide races at this point have no Republican contenders or only apparent long-shot candidates like Rich.
Most Republicans interviewed for this story didn’t want to talk on the record about the state GOP’s lack of bench strength. But privately, some say their problems are at least partly due to the controversies surrounding President Donald Trump, which some fear will drag down Republicans across the country next year. Even U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, the only Republican running for governor, conceded in a recent interview that Trump is less popular in New Mexico today than he was last year.
Some say the fact that Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s approval ratings have been sagging in the last half of her second term might be having an impact on would-be GOP candidates.
Others wonder whether raising enough money to run a credible race is simply too difficult in what many believe is going to be a hard year for Republicans.
For his part, state Republican Party Chairman Ryan Cangiolosi said he’s not worried. More GOP candidates will be announcing in the near future, he said.
“Up and down the ballot, Republicans will have strong candidates to make the case for conservative, principled leadership in New Mexico,” Cangiolosi said in a written statement Friday. “We’ve already fielded outstanding candidates for governor and other statewide offices, with others certain to announce their candidacies in due time. We’re recruiting strong candidates that will put us in a position to take back the state House. Republicans are energetically positioning to win in New Mexico in 2018.”
Other Republicans aren’t as sanguine. Asked about the scarcity of GOP candidates for many state positions, Orlando Baca, a former Santa Fe County Republican Party chairman who also has served as a state GOP officer, said: “It’s hard to find the financial support you need to run a campaign.”
So far, incumbent Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver has no Republican challenger for secretary of state. The same is true for State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg, a Democrat who will be seeking re-election, and only one Republican candidate, Albuquerque lawyer and political newcomer Michael Hendricks, is in the race for attorney general.
Several Democrats — including a past state party chairwoman, a former U.S. attorney and a city councilor — are battling for the open congressional seat in the Albuquerque area, which just a few years ago was one of the most competitive districts in the country.
There is only one candidate in the Republican primary, former state Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones. She ran for the seat in 2012 but lost to Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, who now is running for governor.
Pearce, who has held his Southern New Mexico congressional seat for seven terms, did a good job clearing the field in the Republican gubernatorial primary this summer.
He told reporters that earlier this year he got together with three other high-profile Republicans who had been mentioned as possible gubernatorial candidates: Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, state Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn Jr. and Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry. According to Pearce’s telling, all four agreed he would have the best shot at being elected governor.
Soon after Pearce announced his candidacy in July, Dunn announced he would not seek a second term as land commissioner but instead would run for Pearce’s seat in Congress. Early this month, however, Dunn confirmed he was quitting his candidacy.
Nearly a month later, he has not publicly explained why.
Neither Sanchez, who has been lieutenant governor since 2011, nor Berry, who finishes his second term as mayor in December, has announced any plans.
A few months ago, it seemed something was imminent with Sanchez. He was running Facebook ads inviting people to take an online “issue survey” that displayed what looks like a possible campaign slogan: “A New Day. New Opportunities.”
Sanchez has a one-page website that looks like a campaign website. It asks people to “Join John’s Team Today.” On it, there is this quote: “There are challenges ahead, tough hills to climb and hard decisions to be made, but there is no greater honor for me than fighting for New Mexico and our future. Please join me today.”
According to campaign finance reports filed this year with the Secretary of State’s Office, Sanchez raised little money in the past year. He reported $14,000 in his April report and only $2,500 in the report filed in October. He has, however, spent some money on out-of-state political consultants — more than $94,000 in the past year, nearly all of it between April and October.
Sanchez also contributed $11,700 to GOP candidates, plus $24,000 for various political action committees in October 2016 shortly before last year’s elections. As of early this month, he had $143,687 in his campaign treasury. He has not created a federal campaign account, which he’d need to do if he runs for Senate or a U.S. House seat.
Sanchez could not be reached for comment. An aide on Thursday said he was traveling.
Berry — who has been presiding over a city beset by economic stagnation, a growing crime problem and a police department under a federal consent decree because of the high number of shootings involving officers— also has not announced any future political plans.