Senate seats do not come open often in New Mexico, so friends of Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) have encouraged him to abandon his hopes of becoming the first Latino speaker of the House.
Lujan’s allies now want him to reach for the Senate — a more prominent office than his mid-level post in Democratic leadership — rather than bide his time waiting for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other veteran leaders to step aside.
“I think he has got a really good chance at both,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said Wednesday. “And I think he has to decide what’s best for him, his family and for the state, but I certainly believe that he should run for the Senate.”
Gallego, who decided against his own bid for the Senate this week, had one final bit of advice for his friend. “Don’t wait for it,” he said.
Luján is expected to jump into the race to succeed Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), according to a Democratic adviser familiar with his thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
It’s part of a broad effort by liberal Latino activists to break through in the Senate and other statewide offices as their community has become an increasingly important voting bloc for Democrats.
The Latino Victory Fund jumped on Udall’s announcement Monday that he planned to retire at the end of 2020 by declaring that “it’s crucial that the next U.S. senator from New Mexico be Hispanic.” By Wednesday afternoon the PAC devoted to increasing Hispanic elected officials launched a website trying to draft Luján into the Senate race, citing the turbulent era of President Trump and the battles over his demand for a wall across the Southwest border.
“We cannot be overlooked; we cannot be taken for granted,” Melissa Mark-Viverito, interim president of Latino Victory Fund, said in an interview Wednesday.
The group has launched similar efforts in Arizona on behalf of Gallego before he pulled back from running, and Rep. Joaquin Castro (D) in his consideration of challenging Sen. John Cornyn (R) in Texas next year.
All three draft efforts included a heavy dose of digital ads, trying to boost the number of Hispanic Democrats beyond just Sens. Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.).
Latinos made up 11 percent of the 2016 electorate and broke by a more than 2-to-1 margin for Hillary Clinton over Trump. By 2020, their share of the vote might surpass African Americans and make them the largest minority voting bloc.
But Hispanic leaders have often felt that, when it comes to statewide office, particularly Senate races, that establishment Democrats often favored the “electability” of a white candidate over a rising star Latino.
New Mexico, with a population that is now half Hispanic, has had just one senator of Latino heritage, the late Joseph Montoya.
Montoya, who lost reelection in 1976, is the last Latino in the state to win the Democratic nomination and wage a serious campaign for the Senate. Arizona has never had a Latino U.S. senator, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R) is the only Latino from Texas to serve in the Senate.
Until Cortez Masto’s victory in 2016, Nevada had never had a Hispanic senator. She had won statewide races twice, for attorney general, giving her a prominent position from which to run her campaign.
Now, Cortez Masto is chairing the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and three of her neighboring southwest states have Senate races in 2020. Finding the candidate who can appeal to the burgeoning Latino vote is key.
In Arizona, Gallego decided against running for the nomination against Sen. Martha McSally (R), who was appointed earlier this year to the seat of the late senator John McCain (R). Mark Kelly, the former space shuttle astronaut married to former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D), entered the Senate race early this year and raised more than $1 million in online donations in one day.
He moved fast to lock down as much support as possible while Gallego felt the need to stay out of the race while his ex-wife, Kate Gallego, ran for mayor of Phoenix, a race she won a couple of weeks ago.
“I was just too far behind the eight ball, and Kelly organized faster,” he said.
So now Gallego, a member of the board of Bold PAC, the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, is focusing on getting his friends elected in New Mexico and Texas.
“You have two talented members of Congress that, you know, I think have a very good shot at winning,” he said.
He has told them both not to wait for other party elder statesmen or the DSCC to grant permission to run. “The best thing you could do is move fast, capture the high ground,” Gallego said.
Castro is a longer shot in a state that has gone 25 years without electing a Democrat to statewide office, but Beto O’Rourke’s near miss race last year against Cruz showed that Democrats can get close.
New Mexico is the biggest opportunity in a state that has tilted increasingly Democratic over the past 12 years.
Aides to Luján declined to comment about his intentions. But the race could hinge largely on the Democratic nomination, making it an even more appealing prospect for Luján.
Udall has served two terms in the Senate, and his predecessors in that seat, Pete Domenici (R) and Clinton Anderson (D), held it for the previous 60 years.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D) won New Mexico’s other seat in 2012, and his predecessor, Jeff Bingman (D), held that seat the previous 30 years.
Just 47, Heinrich won another six-year term last fall and could be in the Senate for decades to come.
That means if Lujan, 46, does not jump into this Senate race, the chance might not come around again for a long time. So that’s why his friends believe it is so important to have his voice in the Senate now.
“Having someone there, in the Senate, that is consistently looking out for the community I think would be a great asset,” Gallego said.