Hector Balderas has wanted to be a U.S. senator for a long time. He actually ran for an open Senate seat in 2012 after Sen. Jeff Bingaman announced he wouldn’t seek a sixth term. But now that there’s another Senate seat that will be up for grabs thanks to Sen. Tom Udall’s recent announcement that he isn’t running, Balderas announced last week that, despite rampant speculation, he won’t run.
Balderas made public that decision on the popular Erica Viking & The Hoff morning radio show on KIOT-FM. The Hoff — I’m assuming his was the male voice I heard in the background saying “Whoa!” right after Balderas said the words — was audibly stunned by the announcement. Balderas said a leading factor in his choice is because life as a senator, shuttling back and forth between New Mexico and Washington, D.C., would be too tough on his 20-year-old daughter, who has Down syndrome.
Taking care of your family is a good reason not to seek a job like that. But judging from recent history, that decision might well mean that Balderas never again will run for Senate. U.S. Senate terms are six-year terms. And, at least in my lifetime, New Mexico is prone to elect our senators to multiple terms.
Just look at this list of long-serving U.S. senators from this Enchanted Land.
Republican Pete Domenici, first elected in the first year I could vote, served 36 years (1973-2009); Democrat Bingaman was in D.C. for 30 years (1983-2013). Elected way before my time, Democrat Dennis Chavez served 27 years (1935-62); and Clinton P. Anderson, also a Dem, served 24 years, covering most of the Truman administration up until the Nixon years (1949-73).
Since I became an adult, I’ve only seen two incumbent U.S. senators from New Mexico defeated in elections. One was Joseph Montoya, a Democrat who in 1976 lost to Republican Harrison Schmitt, still our only senator who has set foot on the moon. The other was Schmitt, who lost to Bingaman six years later.
Such a defeat of an incumbent hasn’t happened since I was in my 20s. And that’s a long time ago.
The phenomenon of seemingly never-ending Senate tenures doesn’t only occur in New Mexico. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., held his seat for more than 51 years. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, didn’t say “aloha” for 49 years. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., was there for 47 years (though it seemed like 100) and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass, died in office a few months shy of 47 years after his first Senate election.
After 2020, the next U.S. Senate election in New Mexico will be 2024, when Democrat Martin Heinrich, who was elected to his second term just last year, will be up again. Heinrich will be in his early 50s that year. Assuming he runs again — and avoids screwing up badly in his current term — Heinrich will be hard to beat. At the very least, no serious Democrat would challenge him in the primary.
Or maybe if Udall’s replacement turns out to be a disaster or so good that he or she ends up on a national ticket in 2024 and leaves the seat open (hey, it’s possible, if not probable), then the 2026 Senate race could be competitive.
But chances are, the person elected to Udall’s seat next year likely will be in the Senate as long as he or she wants.
This was the second time in two years that Balderas announced that he wouldn’t be running for an office that a lot of people thought he would run for. In June 2017, Balderas bowed out of the governor’s race, endorsing Michelle Lujan Grisham, who went on to win the governorship last year.
So what’s next for Balderas?
He said at least a couple of time on his radio appearance how much he loves his current job as attorney general. But that job is going to be over at the end of 2022, and the state constitution doesn’t allow statewide officials to serve more than two consecutive terms, so he won’t be running for AG again, at least not that year.
And, assuming Lujan Grisham has a successful first term (we normally don’t turn on our governors in this state until their second term), I can’t see Balderas challenging her in 2022.
So this could be it for Balderas’ immediate political future.
But don’t bet the farm on that. Hector Balderas is only 45 years old and politics has its way of playing tricks on us, presenting unexpected circumstances that once seemed out of the range of possibility.