Rep. Ben Ray Luján, the fourth-ranking House Democrat, announced on Monday a campaign for the open US Senate seat in New Mexico.
In a video released online, Luján referenced his success in 2018 as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the political organization that led the party’s efforts to take over the House.
“I’m running to be your next United States senator,” said Luján, who is the House assistant speaker. “We stood side-by-side as I led the effort to win back the House, so we could lower prescription drug prices, lower health care costs, fight for clean air and clean water, restore voting rights and equal rights and build a brighter future for our kids.”
“But to move forward, we’ve got to fix the Senate, where Mitch McConnell stands in the way of progress,” he added.
Luján, 46, will run in 2020 for the spot left by the retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Udall. He joins other young Democrats in House leadership who have decided to run for other positions rather than wait for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Whip Jim Clyburn – the three long-time leaders of the party in the House – to retire.
Other Democrats who might run for the Senate seat include freshman Rep. Deb Haaland and New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, but Luján’s experience running the DCCC gives him a nationwide network that would boost him in a potential primary.
Some Latino strategists were hoping Luján would run; the state’s percentage of Latino residents is about 48%, higher than any other state, according to the Pew Research Center, but the state has not elected a Latino senator in more than 40 years.
“While we have a great, deep bench of very talented and appealing candidates in New Mexico, for us the logical choice was to run this draft campaign to try to get the assistant speaker to run for the seat,” said Mayra Macias, vice president of the Latino Victory Fund, a political action committee that set up the website “RunBenRayRun.com” last week.
But some progressives say that they would prefer Haaland, one of the first two Native American women elected to the House last year. In a recent interview, Haaland, the former state Democratic Party chair, said she’d be “remiss” if she didn’t consider running and said she won her crowded House primary due to her exceptional organizing experience.
“I want whoever takes his place to be as good on the environment, as good on Indian issues, as good on all these things that Sen. Udall was,” said Haaland. When asked if there’s another barrier to break — the first Native American woman elected to the Senate — she said, “I mean, I think so.”
“I know people will nitpick about Elizabeth Warren,” she added. “She has Native American ancestry, however far back it is.”
Warren last year made public a DNA test that showed distant Native American ancestry, though she later clarified that she is “not a tribal citizen.”
While Haaland downplayed her ideological differences with Luján — she supports a single-payer health care system while he has written a Medicaid buy-in plan — some progressive groups said they would back her because of those positions.
“Both are theoretically electable,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “But if they ran against each other, this would quickly become a nationalized race with establishment, big money donors likely supporting Ben Ray Luján and a nation full of small dollar, grassroots donors supporting Deb Haaland in large part because she is willing to take a lead on issues like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and other transformational ideas.”
“She’s been an ardent supporter of the issues that matter the most to us — the Green New Deal, Medicare for All,” added Yvette Simpson, the leader of Democracy for America. “I think it would be crazy for her not to” consider running.
Macias said that Luján helped usher in the most diverse class in the House’s history, held a sky-high rating from the League of Conservation Voters, the environmental advocacy group, and had the experience — a decade in the House — to be senator.
“The fact that he was at the helm of the DCCC, and the first Hispanic chairman of the DCCC, when Democrats took back the House, is testimony to his bold leadership,” Macias said.
Republicans are seeking to break the state’s entirely Democratic congressional delegation.
Steve Pearce, the New Mexico Republican Party chairman and a former congressman, said the state’s Democratic legislature has overreached on issues like abortion and said Republicans have an opportunity to pick up the seat. In an interview last week, he did not rule out running for the seat himself.
“What we want to do is put up the best possible candidate and we need to have a long discussion among the Republicans in the state to see who are our best shots,” Pearce said. “I think that the organization of the party long-term is important but this seat is also important.”
“That’s not a no, that’s not a yes,” he added.
There are a number of other potential candidates, including former Lt. Gov. John Sanchez and 2018 Secretary of State candidate Gavin Clarkson and chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court Judith Nakamura.
“My focus is on the work of the New Mexico Supreme Court and ensuring completion of projects under way to improve the state court system,” said Nakamura in a statement. “I do not wish to engage in speculation about what the future might bring.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.