Democrats Focus on Denish in N.M.

Posted October 10, 2007 at 6:32pm

After initially ruling out a Senate bid, New Mexico Lt. Gov. Diane Denish is acquiescing to pressure from her fellow Democrats and is considering a 2008 run for the seat being vacated by iconic Sen. Pete Domenici (R).

Denish, considered by Democrats to be their strongest candidate absent a change of heart by Gov. Bill Richardson (who is running for president), is putting her plans to run for governor in 2010 on hold while she examines her political viability for Senate and decides if living in Washington, D.C., fits her lifestyle.

If Denish does run for Senate, she’ll be following the well-worn path of four recently elected Senators who had intended to run for governor before being recruited to Capitol Hill by the establishment of their respective political parties.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who persuaded now-Sen. Bob Casey (Pa.) to run in the previous cycle despite his gubernatorial ambitions, is said to have called Denish several times since Domenici’s announcement last week. And Democratic fundraising powerhouse EMILY’s List is among those groups encouraging Denish to run.

“We’ve worked with Diane Denish in the past. We think she’s a terrific candidate. If she runs for the U.S. Senate she’ll make a terrific candidate,” said EMILY’s List Political Director Jonathan Parker. He added that the pro-abortion-rights organization also is talking to former state Attorney General and potential candidate Patricia Madrid (D) about the Senate race.

Meanwhile, Denish running could be good news for Republicans at least in one way: It could trigger a bloody Democratic primary with Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez (D), who was planning to run for governor in 2010 but in the wake of Domenici announcing he would retire next year has decided to run for Senate.

Democrats on Capitol Hill and in New Mexico hope to avoid such a primary, but the rivalry that exists between Chavez and Denish might make that impossible. Some Democratic strategists dialed into New Mexico politics fail to see the logic of Chavez and Denish challenging each other in the Senate primary — a poll conducted earlier this year on a hypothetical Democratic primary gubernatorial matchup between the two showed Denish with a substantial lead. But others familiar with the state believe the bad blood that exists between Chavez and Denish will make it difficult to convince either to back down from the race.

“With Chavez out of the gubernatorial race, Denish has a cakewalk into the governor’s office,” offered one Democratic strategist based in New Mexico. “It makes no sense” that she’d run for Senate.

Adding to the Democrats’ potential primary woes is wealthy developer Don Wiviott (D), who is pledging to spend $2.1 million of his own money to win his party’s Senate nomination. One Democratic operative based in the Land of Enchantment cautioned that Wiviott shouldn’t be overlooked. Making at least one smart move right out of the box, Wiviott hired respected New Mexico political consultant Caroline Burkle to advise him.

“He’s charming and he’s personable and he’s a breath of fresh air in a year when people are going to vote for change,” this operative said.

If Denish ultimately abandons her gubernatorial ambitions and answers the call of Democratic powerbrokers trying to coax her into the Senate race, she’ll follow in a long line of now-Senators who originally expressed a preference for their state capital over Capitol Hill.

Among them is Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who was poised to run for governor in 2002 when then-chief White House adviser Karl Rove helped convince him to run for Senate. Thune lost that year to Sen. Tim Johnson (D) but ran again in 2004 and knocked off then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D).

Also in 2004, Democrats convinced South Carolina Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum to run for Senate against now-Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Tenenbaum lost, but she was probably the best Democratic candidate available that year in the Palmetto State. Republicans gained a Senate seat in 2004 as well when then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez put his 2006 gubernatorial ambitions on hold and won an open Florida Senate seat.

However, Democrats scored in 2004 in Colorado, where then-state Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) dumped his gubernatorial plans and ran successfully for the Senate. Two years later, Democrats received another gift when Casey, then the state auditor and long assumed to be biding his time until the 2010 gubernatorial race, opted to run for Senate — and won.

Denish spokeswoman Kate Nelson said Wednesday that the lieutenant governor is keeping her options open at this point. Nelson declined to provide a timeline for a decision and would not reveal who her boss is talking to as she considers what course to take.

“She’s received lot of encouragement to run for Senate and would not otherwise consider it except that she’s very concerned with state of our nation at this time in our history,” Nelson said.

Ironically, Domenici defeated Denish’s father, Jack Daniels, when he first won his Senate seat in 1972.

Meanwhile, Republicans could be facing a contentious primary of their own.

Rep. Heather Wilson (R) — who revealed this week that she raised $238,000 in the third quarter of the year to close September with $754,000 in cash on hand — already is in the race, while Rep. Steve Pearce (N.M.) has formed an exploratory committee to examine his viability.

State Public Lands Commissioner Patrick Lyons (R) — who holds a statewide elected position — and oil executive Spiro Vassilopoulos (R), also are considering a run.

How rough the Republican primary gets could hinge on Pearce, who, like Denish, was eyeing the gubernatorial race in 2010 until Domenici abandoned his 2008 re-election plans. Political operatives said Pearce currently is in the field polling his strength, and spokesman Brian Phillips indicated that the Congressman is exploring his ability to finance a race that is expected to be hotly contested.

Phillips said Pearce intends to make a decision “sooner rather than later” but could not provide a specific timeline. The Congressman’s third-quarter fundraising numbers were not available at press time.

One Republican operative based in New Mexico believes the GOP would be better off with Wilson running for Senate in 2008 and Pearce running for governor in 2010. This operative said such a scenario would give Republicans the best opportunity to win both races.

“Heather is a little bit wonkish, and I think she would make a better Senate candidate,” this Republican said.