It turns out the 37-year-old New Mexico Democratic state auditor had his eye on a bigger office. He’s now running for the open Senate seat in the Land of Enchantment against the well-known, well-funded Rep. Martin Heinrich — setting up a contentious primary for the seat being vacated by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D).
“I’m definitely not the establishment candidate,” Balderas told The Fix in an interview for our Rising series that looks at up and coming politicians of both parties. “I’ve always been the underdog in my life, and I foresee that we will beat the odds just as we have every time.”
Some supporters compare Balderas to Gov. Susana Martinez (R), the state’s first Latina governor. She won 38 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2010 — not an overwhelming crossover vote for Latino voters, who have been voting more and more Democratic in recent years, but a significant shift from the 31 percent who voted Republican in the 2008 presidential race.
Like Martinez, Balderas is a barrier-breaker. When he became state auditor at 33, he was the youngest Hispanic person elected to statewide office in the country. (In the 2006 state auditor race, Balderas was tapped to replace Jeff Armijo, who dropped out over sexual misconduct allegations.)
More than half of Democratic primary voters in the state are Hispanic. While Hispanic turnout lags behind population nationally, in the 2010 election 32 percent of voters in New Mexico were Hispanic — more than any other state. In 2008, 41 percent of New Mexico voters were Hispanic — given that 38 percent of eligible voters are Hispanic, they were actually slightly overrepresented.
Balderas supporters and friends are quick to argue that ethnicity doesn’t have much to do with this race. But if you look at the endorsements he’s gotten from local officials, they’re all Hispanic. (Heinrich, on the other hand, has picked up the backing of national Democratic groups like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the League of Conservation Voters.)
And, Balderas himself acknowledged that having a Hispanic candidate on the ticket will encourage turnout from the Latino community.
“I think they’ve become discouraged and it goes a long way to encourage leaders from within their own community to serve,” Balderas said. He added that he was “optimistic” that more Hispanic voters would participate “as they see more members from their community ascend into positions of public service.”
Balderas is particularly connected to the rural, low-income communities in the state. He grew up in Wagon Mound, New Mexico, a town of 130 people and one of the poorest in the nation. He’s the first person in his family to get a college degree and the first person from his hometown to become a lawyer. “I always tell Hector he comes from the only town I’ve ever heard of that celebrates beans,” said Paula Garcia, a local activist. (That’s Wagon Mound Bean Day.)
Like Martinez, Balderas has a shot at winning over Hispanics who traditonally vote for the other party. He won fans on both sides of the aisle with his aggressive investigations of both Republicans and Democrats as state auditor. He uncovered evidence that helped lead to the indictment of former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron (D).
Balderas was in the state House for only a single term, but colleagues remember him as a quick study and hard worker. “He’s a very good student of goverment, said House Majority Leader Ken Martinez (D). “Every year I kind of look and see who’s smart and gets it and give them a couple assignments. He did a great job with them.”
“He’s honest. He tries to do what’s right,” said Keith Gardner (R) of Balderas back in 2009. Gardner is the former House minority leader and now serves as Martinez’s chief of staff in 2009. “He’s just a solid guy and so I have a ton of respect for him.”
Not everyone in the state loves Balderas. While officials on both sides of the aisle praise his work as an auditor, he sparred repeatedly with former Attorney General Gary King (D). The AG launched an investigation into a fraud hotline set up by Balderas, but nothing ever came of it.
The big question for Balderas is whether he can raise enough money to compete with Heinrich. He’s gotten a little bit lucky in earlier races — all good candidates need a little luck — and never had to raise much money. He argues that his statewide connections as auditor and his ties to community organizers will help him launch a grassroots campaign. When he releases his first quarterly spending report in mid-July, we’ll see if that’s the case.
Whatever happens, Democrats are all insisting (and hoping) that the primary won’t get nasty. “The most important thing to remember is that New Mexico is a battleground state and a bitter primary fight that’s divisive will hurt the chances of the Democrats to be able to win that seat statewide,” said Garcia. “So I think that it’s really incumbent on both sides to run a very respectful campaign.”
Some Hispanic Democrats are still unhappy over the 2008 Senate primary, when Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez was pressured to drop out in favor of now-Sen. Tom Udall.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s decision not to get involved in this primary despite bragging about recruiting Heinrich is likely is in part due to their desire not to upset Hispanic voters. Right now, it’s too early to say whether Balderas can win. But he shows no sign of quitting.