Bingaman plans to retire

Freedom New Mexico

In a surprising move, New Mexico’s Jeff Bingaman, who’s served in the Senate for almost 30 years, announced Friday that he will not run for re-election in 2012.

“I believe it will be the right time for me to step aside and allow someone else to serve the state,” he said. “It’s not easy to get elected to the Senate. It’s obviously not easy to make the decision to leave the Senate.”

Clovis Mayor Gayla Brumfield said Bingaman had been a supporter of Clovis, Portales and eastern New Mexico, working to keep Cannon Air Force Base active and get the Ute water pipeline project authorized.

“I was quite surprised, and I really hate to see him retire because he has been such a champion for our state and especially eastern New Mexico,” she said.

Roosevelt County Republican Party Chairman Larry Smith said he had known Bingaman personally.

“Jeff’s always been a gentleman, and despite our political differences, I wish him well and look forward to having him back in New Mexico,” Smith said. “I see it as an opportunity for the Republican party to find an able replacement and one that will serve the people of New Mexico well.”

The retirement of Bingaman, the fifth-most-senior Democrat in the chamber, is a blow to a party already reeling from last week’s decision by Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia to not seek a second term.

Democrats must defend 23 Senate seats next year — and New Mexico had not been considered an anxiety-producing race on the order of coming battles in Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio and elsewhere. But Bingaman’s move could push that contest into the foreground as well.

The Land of Enchantment is in flux politically. Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, who dominated the state’s politics for eight years, ended his term last year with low approval ratings and was replaced by a Republican, Susana Martinez, who is viewed as a rising star in the party. The 2010 elections also allowed GOP Rep. Steve Pearce to reclaim his old congressional seat from Democrat Harry Teague.

The timing of Bingaman’s announcement, however, gives Democrats plenty of time to find a competitive candidate. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling suggested that two state’s two current Democratic representatives, Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan, match up well against potential Republican entrants such as Pearce and former Rep. Heather Wilson.

A wild card might be former Gov. Gary Johnson, a libertarian on the order of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. Johnson is also considering a presidential bid.

The Public Policy Polling survey showed that Bingaman, 67, likely would have coasted to re-election. With his retirement, the environmental lobby loses a key ally. Bingaman chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and has long been an advocate of legislative attempts to curb greenhouse gases.

— Staff and wire reports