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Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is expected to decide in mid-March whether to seek a fifth term in 2006. It’s a decision that could have major reverberations in New Mexico.
A decision to retire would create the first Senate vacancy in the state since Sen. Pete Domenici (R) was elected in 1972. (Bingaman won his seat by defeating Republican Sen. Harrison Schmitt in 1982.)
Bingaman’s retirement could prompt vacancies in all three of the state’s House districts, because all three Representatives are seen as potential Senate candidates in an open-seat race.
“If he does step down, he opens up a lot of boxes out of that Pandora,” said Greg Graves, executive director of the New Mexico Republican Party.
Bingaman will make his intentions known shortly after informing his staff of his decision, sources in New Mexico and Washington, D.C., said this week.
“We will hear from him in a matter of weeks,” Jude McCartin, a Bingaman spokeswoman, confirmed.
Political observers disagree on whether the 61-year-old Senator wants six more years in Washington, and the preternaturally reticent lawmaker has dropped no discernible hints. As of Sept. 30, he had a modest $282,000 in his campaign account.
Those who know Bingaman say he still enjoys serving in the Senate, is confident enough about his prospects for re-election, and doesn’t appear eager to slide into a lucrative lobbying post if he retires.
But several authorities on New Mexico politics say that Bingaman is weighing whether he wants to aggressively campaign and raise money for another term, especially when Democrats will probably remain in the Congressional minority for the foreseeable future. He would be far more eager to run again, sources say, if he could move up from ranking member to chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the 110th Congress.
If Bingaman does run again, he would be a strong favorite for re-election, even though New Mexico was one of just two states — Iowa was the other — that voted for Democrat Al Gore in 2000 and then switched to President Bush in 2004.
Democrats, smarting from Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s razor-thin loss in the Land of Enchantment last November, are “digging in already and building our infrastructure for 2006,” said Matt Farrauto, a spokesman for the state party.
In the meantime, Bingaman’s decision will be made amid uncertainty over what the future holds for his Republican counterpart, Domenici. The state’s 72-year-old senior Senator has battled a variety of ailments in the past year, but has told reporters that he has been feeling better of late and is undecided about seeking a seventh term in 2008.
“It would be disastrous for them to retire back-to-back,” said a former Democratic strategist in Santa Fe who is now a lobbyist in the state Capitol.
Until Bingaman announces his intentions, politicos say, Congressional politics in the Land of Enchantment are essentially on hold.
Some Republican leaders, emboldened by Bush’s showing there, hold out the hope that Rep. Heather Wilson (R) — who is seen as very likely to run for an open Senate seat — decides to challenge Bingaman if he runs for another term.