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New Mexico's 1st district, a battleground for more than a decade, is in danger of sliding off the radar for national Republicans in 2012.
All eyes in Albuquerque are on a potentially nasty Democratic primary between three well-financed current or former elected officials. Given its recent voting history, a competitive open-seat race could still develop before November, but at this point Republicans view the race to replace Rep. Martin Heinrich (D) as an uphill climb.
"It doesn't look like the Republicans are as positioned to put up as big of a fight for that seat as they have in the past, and that's a pretty dramatic development," said Joe Monahan, a plugged-in independent political analyst in New Mexico. "You need a heavyweight Republican in this district now more than ever because the district has just gotten more blue."
The filing deadline came and went last week with no last-minute entrance from a big-name Republican. The GOP took a hit last month when 2010 nominee Jon Barela opted against running again and Lt. Gov. John Sanchez — who just dropped out of the Senate race — also chose to sit it out.
Three candidates will be on both June 5 primary ballots, and the Democratic nominee will likely emerge as the frontrunner heading into November.
Former Albuquerque Mayor Marty Chavez, state Sen. Eric Griego and Bernalillo County Commissioner Michelle Lujan Grisham are vying to keep Heinrich's seat in Democratic hands. All three reported more than $200,000 each in cash on hand at the end of December.
"You've got three very different candidates," one Democratic strategist said. "I think it's going to get dirty, and I do think it is going to be close."
The Democratic and Republican House campaign committees spent more than $1.5 million combined in the district in 2010, when Heinrich survived a disastrous year for Democrats with a 4-point victory.
Former Rep. Heather Wilson (R), who is also running for Senate, held the seat for five terms. Wilson's moderate voting record and political acumen helped her win six elections — including a 1998 special — in the Democratic-trending district without ever taking more than 55 percent of the vote.
Redistricting did nothing to change the Democratic partisan advantage. The new map, drawn by the courts, hardly moved the lines at all — President Barack Obama still would have carried the district with 60 percent of the vote, Democrats hold a 15-point registration advantage and the district has a 44 percent Latino voting-age population.
Stephen Clermont, a Democratic pollster who has worked extensively in New Mexico, said the district, won by a Republican in 2006 and a Democrat in 2008, is no longer viewed by the parties as essential to winning the House majority.
"The GOP can lose this seat again and still maintain House control," Clermont said. "Winning it will be a luxury for them. It is not a bellwether anymore."
Gov. Susana Martinez (R) carried the district in 2010, Clermont noted, but a presidential year is different.
"It should be considered Democratic-leaning because the Democratic and Hispanic voters in the South Valley, Valencia County are more likely to turn out than in gubernatorial years," he said.
Albuquerque City Councilor Dan Lewis, former state Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones and retired Army Sgt. Gary Smith are hoping to flip the seat back to Republicans.