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The Cook Political Report: Can The Domenici Dynasty Put New Mexico Back On The Map?

By Matthew Klein, Published May 30, 2024

It’s been 22 years since New Mexico sent Republican Pete Domenici back to Congress’ upper chamber in a 30-point rout. Now, his daughter Nella is waging a Senate campaign of her own — and she’s hoping the family surname will help turn this sleepy sideshow into a top-tier tussle.

Republicans’ optimism stems from some reasonably convincing back-of-the-envelope math: About 43% of New Mexico’s citizen voting-age population is Hispanic, the highest share of any state. As President Joe Biden shows signs of slippage with Hispanic voters nationwide, New Mexico may become uniquely fertile ground for GOP inroads. That could whittle Biden’s 11-point win in 2020 down to single digits this November — headwinds weak enough for a moderate Republican with a familiar brand to overcome.

But Democrats insist that’s a vast oversimplification, pointing to two-term Sen. Martin Heinrich’s decisive cash-on-hand advantage ($4.4 million to her $1.1 million as of May 15) and down-ballot Democrats’ recent track record of outpolling the president. Plus, Democrats have the power of polarization on their side: Since 2016, just one state — Maine in 2020 — has simultaneously split its ticket for president and Senate.

With Biden still favored to win New Mexico, it’s hard to deny that Democrats remain in the driver’s seat here. Still, both parties agree Heinrich can’t afford to doze off behind the wheel.

Domenici’s big challenge is convincing moderates and independents that she’s not a run-of-the-mill Republican. Her last name will be an undeniable asset in that regard, particularly among older voters who recall her father’s 36-year stint as one of the Senate’s senior statesmen. But arguably more beneficial to Domenici is the fact that she avoided drawing a primary challenger, which prevents her from having to run to the right — and take controversial stances on issues such as abortion rights — in order to secure her party’s nomination.

Another reason Republicans are excited about her candidacy: Like several of the party’s 2024 Senate recruits in other states, Domenici — a former executive at the investment management firm Bridgewater Associates — has the ability to self-fund. She had already loaned her campaign $510,000 by May 15, a number allies expect to swell over the course of the campaign. That will help her keep pace with Heinrich on TV — and possibly force Democrats to spend on defense in a state that should be a layup — without necessitating outside investment from national Republican groups.

For most of 2024, this contest had been short on intrigue. But on May 28, Domenici made an early move on the airwaves, dropping $325,000 on an introductory ad that paints her upbringing as down-to-earth in spite of her father’s prominent perch. The ad — which also touts her as a self-made mom who “worked her way up to CFO” — is an early insurance policy against expected Democratic attacks. Last cycle, Domenici’s half-brother Adam Laxalt was scorched by a highly effective “Succession”-inspired ad that blasted him as an elite “child of Washington” in his failed quest for Nevada’s Senate seat.

Heinrich, who has served in Congress since 2009, is gearing up for a competitive race. He’s prepared to lean into the local economic benefits of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, as well as his role in passing the Hermit’s Peak Fire Assistance Act as part of an appropriations package in 2022. Heinrich is also poised to style himself as a champion for New Mexico’s vital energy industry, both by touting his work on transforming the state into a renewable powerhouse and by playing up his 2021 vote against a national ban on hydraulic fracking as a testament to his independence.

Like other Democratic candidates for Congress, Heinrich is expected to portray Domenici as a vote for a national ban on abortion. But the salience of that attack isn’t entirely clear yet, since abortion is legal in New Mexico and Domenici is expected to argue that the issue should be left up to the states.

Sources on both sides anticipate that Domenici will eventually be forced to defend her business record at Bridgewater. In Pennsylvania, Democrats have already pounced on GOP Senate nominee David McCormick — who likewise made a fortune at the company — for outsourcing jobs and selling out American interests as an executive. Democrats have also criticized Domenici for avoiding all but the most friendly media outlets, accusing her of avoiding tough questions about where she stands on hot-button issues.

Republicans intend to define Heinrich as an absentee senator whose time in Washington has left him out-of-touch with New Mexico. Some have murmured about making an issue of his decision to relocate and raise his family in the Washington suburbs after his initial victory. But the Heinrich campaign dismissed residency concerns as a non-issue in a statement to The Cook Political Report, stating that “his family temporarily lived in Maryland after Martin was first elected to the Senate in order to allow him to be a present father and spouse. They moved back to New Mexico in 2020.”

Part of Heinrich’s problem is that he isn’t exactly a celebrity senator. An April report from Morning Consult placed Heinrich among the 25 least popular members of the chamber, pegging his approval rating at an unimpressive 45%. Another 20% of voters had no opinion of him in the survey, which Republicans insist will make it easier for their attacks to stick.

New Mexico is an extremely cheap state to buy advertising, and almost all the action happens over its enormous Albuquerque media market. That’s good news for Domenici, whose pocketbook will go considerably farther than those of self-funders in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Four years ago, New Mexico hosted an unexpectedly close Senate race between Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján and Republican meteorologist Mark Ronchetti. Luján won by just six points despite more than doubling Ronchetti in spending, $9.5 million to $4 million. Republicans claim that as proof that a candidate who can spend at parity with Democrats is capable of making this a truly competitive race. But Democrats counter that the 2024 matchup will require defeating an incumbent, which is a far harder feat.

The big question in New Mexico — at least right now — isn’t whether Domenici can win, but whether she can put a Senate race in this consistently blue state on the map at all. This race is still in its early stages, so it remains in the Solid Democrat category. But there’s potential for a reevaluation down the line if Domenici indicates that she will continue to invest and proves she can maneuver around her party’s struggling brand in the state. National Democrats say that if Domenici begins higher spending, the race could receive a closer level of scrutiny from them.

Either way, Republicans are perfectly content to keep Democrats scrambling to defend even more of their own slate of Senate seats up in 2024.


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