New Mexico Senate Race Is A Surprise Bellwether?

Posted on Wednesday, June 5, 2024
by Barry Casselman

Democrat – Martin Heinrich (L) & Republican – Nella Domenici (R)

It wasn’t on anyone’s list of competitive U.S. Senate races when the 2024 election cycle began, but the New Mexico re-election effort of Democrat incumbent Senator Martin Heinrich has unexpectedly become a point of Republican optimism for taking back control of the upper chamber in 2025.

The big surprise development in the race was the announcement by Nella Domenici, a 62-year-old successful businesswoman, that she would seek the Republican nomination. Domenici had not run for political office before, but her name is nonetheless legendary in the state’s politics.

In recent cycles, New Mexico has been a reliably blue state and has elected liberal figures in statewide races. This year was expected to be more of the same, and despite his low public profile, Heinrich was considered to be an almost certain winner for a second term.

But Republicans, under their senate campaign chair, Montana Senator Steve Daines, have been determined to nominate strong challengers against potentially vulnerable Democrat incumbents.

Daines has successfully recruited an impressive slate of candidates for most of the eight vulnerable Democrat seats on the ballot in November. In addition, he pulled some surprises by getting former GOP Governor Larry Hogan to run for the open seat in heavily blue Maryland with Democrat Ben Cardin retiring, and now Domenici to challenge Heinrich in New Mexico.

A very successful and popular governor in liberal Maryland, the moderate Hogan now has a serious chance to pick up that seat and leads in most polls against his Democrat opponent.

In West Virginia, incumbent Democrat Joe Manchin is retiring, and GOP nominee Governor Jim Justice is heavily favored to pick up the seat in this red state. If Justice and Hogan win, that gives the GOP a 51-49 majority assuming they hold all the other seats they are defending. However, as the tiny conservative majority in the current session of the House of Representatives has demonstrated, narrow GOP majorities are dysfunctional and often unable to pass key legislation.

A narrow Republican Senate majority, and the possibility that the new House will again have a small GOP majority (or maybe even be in the minority), makes it necessary for conservatives to pick up more than two seats in November.

Some of them need to come from the remaining vulnerable Democrat seats (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Montana, Nevada, Arizona), but GOP nominees, including Domenici, still slightly trail incumbents in most of those races, and the final direction of 2024, complicated by the presidential contest, remains unclear.

Nella Domenici presents one avenue for Republicans to win a race previously considered “safe” for Democrats and increase the GOP’s chances for a large senate majority.

One of Domenici’s big advantages is that she has one of the most iconic and popular surnames in New Mexico politics. Her father, former Senator Pete Domenici (1973-2009) was a major leader in the U.S. Senate and a beloved New Mexico figure for decades. While Nella has not run for office before, she has had a very successful career and is able to self-finance a major campaign against an incumbent. Her business experience would also make her one of the most knowledgeable and expert senators in banking and finance.

Nella is also running against one of the least charismatic senate incumbents. The border crisis is an immediate problem in New Mexico, and the state is suffering from poor economic, business, and educational conditions. These circumstances put the liberal political domination of the state in question. Donald Trump could win this state, and so could Nella Domenici. She is already campaigning hard, introducing herself to her home state with a conservative economic message and a political personality that resonates from her family name.

Should Nella Domenici defeat Martin Heinrich in November, it would likely foretell other GOP victories in the competitive senate races this cycle, and even signal a national Republican sweep.

Barry Casselman is a writer for AMAC Newsline.

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