Despite winning election to his fifth Senate term in 2006 with more than 70 percent of the vote, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) announced in February that he would not run for another term in 2012. The race to replace him has rapidly attracted candidates.
 
Declared Democratic candidates include 1st district Congressman Martin Heinrich, state Auditor Hector Balderas, and progressive activist Andres Valdez. Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Diane Denish have indicated that they may join the race as well.
 
On the Republican side, newly elected Lt. Gov. John Sanchez and former 1st district Rep. Heather Wilson are running along with local businessmen William English and Greg Sowards. 2nd district Rep. Steve Pearce, who defeated incumbent Democrat Harry Teague in 2010, may run as well.
 
So far, most of the drama has taken place on the Republican side. Wilson, the state party’s preferred candidate, had hoped to lock in endorsements early and raise enough money to scare off potential challengers. The candidacy of Lt. Gov. Sanchez, who has staked out positions to Wilson’s right, has complicated things.
 
In a recently released television ad, Sanchez attempted to turn Wilson’s Washington experience against her. “We don't want to return people back to Washington, D.C, who got us into the mess in the first place,” the lieutenant governor said in the ad, which was backed up with a $25,000 buy. “It's time for a new voice. I can be one of those leaders who will stand up for principled conservative values.” Wilson’s team shot back with a statement accusing Sanchez of running on an “invented” record of conservatism.
 
Sanchez, who announced his candidacy last Tuesday, received what is being interpreted as a rebuke the same day from his erstwhile running mate, Gov. Susana Martinez. The governor said n a statement that she would make no endorsement in the race at this point and added: “To prevent this race from becoming a distraction, Lt. Governor Sanchez will not be given responsibilities in my administration beyond the select few provided for in the state Constitution.”
 
The Wilson campaign didn’t hesitate to pile on. On Tuesday, it released a statement from Clint Harden, a state senator, calling on Sanchez to resign his position as lieutenant governor because of the influence it offers him over redistricting. The next day, National Journal reports, the Wilson campaign posted images of herself with Gov. Martinez, who is the state’s highest-profile and perhaps most popular Republican figure.
 
At this point, according to Lonna Atkeson, director of the Center for Democracy at the University of New Mexico, the race is less about courting voters and more about fundraising. “That is going to be important for Sanchez,” she says. “There is only so much money in this state or in the surrounding area. If Martinez doesn’t come out and say, ‘He is my guy,’ the money is not going to flow for him. Wilson is ahead of the game.”
 
The Democratic Senate primary has been far quieter, leading to a situation that is reminiscent of 2008, when a bloody Republican Senate primary between Wilson and Steve Pearce left the Democratic nominee, Tom Udall, plenty of time to accumulate support and donations.
 
Balderas, who sources say is working closely with former state Democratic Party Chairman Brian Colon on his campaign, has a slight advantage in terms of name recognition among Hispanic voters. However, several experts agree that the Hispanic vote can be difficult for candidates to pin down.
 
Gabriel Ramon Sanchez, an assistant professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, points out that Valdez could easily drain Balderas’s Hispanic support. “[Valdez is] much more of a social activist who does not have much of a shot at the nomination, but could divide that voting bloc if he runs a decent campaign,” says Sanchez.
 
Atkeson agrees, pointing out that while Hispanics make up about half of the state’s registered Democrats, they turn out at relatively low rates. In 2010, for instance, 31 percent of registered Latinos voted, compared with nearly half of registered white voters.
 
New Mexico has been trending Democratic on the federal level for several decades, but the race to replace Bingaman is nonetheless described as competitive by most political handicappers.

NOTE: This post has been corrected since it was first published.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. E-mail him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com