NM & TX-Sen: “There are only 4 Latino senators. Will more be joining them after 2020?”

We received some very big news in New Mexico yesterday:

Rep. Ben Ray Luján plans to run for the Senate in New Mexico and is set to officially announce his candidacy Monday, according to two sources familiar with the Democrat’s decision.

The seat opened after Democratic incumbent Tom Udall announced Monday he would not seek re-election.

Luján, the assistant speaker and former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will be a formidable candidate. But he also isn’t likely to have the field to himself.

Rep. Deb Haaland and New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver have been mentioned as potential candidates.

Toulouse Oliver tweeted Thursday that she was “seriously considering” a Senate run and would announce her decision “in the days ahead.”

State Attorney General Hector Balderas in a radio interview Thursday took himself out of contention , saying that he wanted to remain in his current position and stay with his family in New Mexico.

With Lujan entering the race to fill retiring U.S. Senator Tom Udall’s (D. NM) seat, this is a great opportunity for the Hispanic community to increase their representation in the U.S. Senate:

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.

And Latino grassroots efforts are wasting no time building momentum for Lujan’s campaign:

A political action committee that works to recruit Hispanic candidates across the country is putting its weight behind Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján for the newly open Senate seat in New Mexico.

The Latino Victory Fund announced its “Run, Ben Ray, Run!” digital campaign Wednesday in an exclusive release to Roll Call.

“Luján has been a tireless advocate and progressive champion for the people of New Mexico and the Latino community across the country,“ said Melissa Mark-Viverito, the group’s interim president. “His unparalleled experience and bold leadership style will serve New Mexico well in the United States Senate.”

The fund is launching a website to recruit Luján, the No. 4 Democrat in the House, and will “focus on building grassroots support,” according to a press release.

And the Latino Victory Fund is also pushing to get Rep. Joaquin Castro (D. TX) to challenge U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R. TX). Roll Call has taken notice of the Latino Victory Fund’s candidate recruitment efforts and asks, “There are only 4 Latino senators. Will more be joining them after 2020?”:

Texas presents the next best opportunity for a Latino candidate to compete in a high-profile Senate race. Castro is considering challenging GOP Sen. John Cornyn in a state where 30 percent of eligible voters are Latino. Cornyn won 48 percent of Texas Latino voters in his 2014 race, according to Pew.

On Monday, the Latino Victory Fund launched a “Run Joaquin Run!” campaign, calling on Castro to jump into the race. The campaign involves digital ads targeted to Latino voters. A sample ad shared with Roll Call urges viewers to sign on to a petition supporting Castro, calling him “the candidate we need to unseat Senator John Cornyn.”

“There would be a lot of excitement around [Castro’s] candidacy,” said Andy Canales, co-chairman of the Latino Texas PAC, which supports Latino candidates at the state and local level.

“I think it would generate a lot of interest around the Latino community because we typically don’t see a lot of candidates running for office at the local level or the statewide level,” Canales said.

Trump carried the Lonestar State by 9 points in 2016 and Inside Elections rates Cornyn’s bid for a fourth term Solid Republican.

But prospects have dimmed for Latino candidates in two other competitive Senate races where high-profile contenders have opted not to run.

The Latino Victory Fund had been encouraging Gallego to run for Senate in Arizona, which has never elected a Latino senator. But Gallego decided Monday not to challenge appointed GOP Sen. Martha McSally in a race Inside Elections rates a Toss-up. He said polling showed that the only way to win a primary was to wage a bitter fight against retired astronaut and Navy veteran Mark Kelly, who entered the race last month.

Gamboa’s statement indicated that the fund is focusing its efforts on other states now that Gallego is not running. The congressman told reporters Monday he had heard other people were considering running for Senate, but he declined to name names.

The next state with the highest percentage of eligible Hispanic voters, also hosting a competitive Senate race, is Colorado, where Latinos make up 16 percent of eligible voters and 21 percent of the population.

Republican incumbent Cory Gardner is a top Democratic target as one of two GOP senators running in states Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Inside Elections rates his re-election a Toss-Up.

Activist Lorena Garcia, who is of Mexican descent, is running in the Democratic primary, but she is not usually mentioned among the higher-profile hopefuls who have previously run statewide, including former state Sen. Mike Johnston and former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

Crisanta Duran, who was the first Latina state House speaker in the country, was considering a Senate run in Colorado. But she decided to challenge Rep. Diana DeGette in a primary instead.

Garcia has been reaching out to other Latinos in the state, according to Nicole Melaku, the executive director of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition Action Fund.

“While the fundraising can be a barrier for Latinx communities, [Garcia] certainly understands how to do field work,” Melaku said. She was hopeful Garcia would attract Latino support, but her group is not making any endorsements until the fall. She was also not aware of any other Latino candidates eyeing the race.

“I think it’s important that our candidates reflect our demographics,” Melaku said. “We definitely see the connection of increased voter turnout and engagement when people are excited about the candidate, and many times, that comes down to identity.”

It remains to be seen but Castro colleagues in the House are pushing him to run for the U.S. Senate:

On Friday, Latino Victory put up a Run, Joaquin, Run website urging Castro, D-San Antonio, to seek the Democrats' 2020 nomination to challenge Cornyn, a three-term Senate veteran.

Backing the drive were four Texans in Congress, Reps. Veronica Escobar of El Paso, Sylvia Garcia of Houston, Filemon Vela of Brownsville and Vincente Gonzalez of McAllen.

Today, an additional five names were added to that list backing a Castro candidacy: State Reps. Gina Hinojosa, Celia Israel, Mary Gonzalez, Lina Ortega and Leticia Van de Putte, of San Antonio, who was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2014.

Castro said recently he is nearing a decision on whether to run but has not given a timetable.

In the era of Trump, we need more Latinos in all branches of Government to truly represent the face of our country. Beto O’Rourke’s (D. TX) tight race with U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R. TX) gave Texas Democrats the confidence they needed to prove that the Lone Star State is competitive. Plus, Castro knows now is the perfect time to go after Cornyn:

The initiative by Castro comes as the four-term congressman seems to be exerting significant political influence in the House for the first time as a member of the majority party. In addition to his role in the the constitutional debate, Castro is chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He also serves on the House Committee on Intelligence and is vice-chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. Additionally, he is campaign chairman for his brother’s presidential run—a role that may change if he launches a senate campaign.

Gilberto Ocañas, a longtime Democratic operative, said Cornyn’s vulnerabilities to a Castro campaign go hand in hand with Cornyn’s defense of Trump as the majority whip in the Senate, a leadership role that he left in December because of Republican term limits. “The most important thing is that he stands behind a president whose policies have hurt Texas, from attacking our largest trading partner in Mexico to attacking Hispanics,” Ocañas said. “Cornyn seems to lack the courage to represent Texas first.”

Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, said a Castro entry into the campaign “is going to juice things up.” He said the brothers’ political careers have always been mutually beneficial. “They have both been quite careful and supportive of one another,” he said. Jack Martin, another longtime Texas Democratic operative, agreed. “They have always worked as a team. Their assets are transferable.”

One example of that at play is the timing of Thursday’s revelation that Joaquin has all but made up his mind to jump into the race, Sabato said. News of Castro’s likely entry into the Senate race may help mute some of the media coverage of O’Rourke’s entry into the presidential race.

A Castro entry into the race may also foreclose a political option for O’Rourke, Martin said. If O’Rourke’s presidential campaign were to flounder in an increasingly crowded Democratic field, O’Rourke still would have the option of dropping his bid at the national level and jumping into the Senate race. A Castro candidacy makes that option less attractive.

An active campaign by the Castro brothers also raises the possibility of increasing Hispanic voter turnout, Sabato said. “Hispanics are the key to changing Texas [purple].” But Martin cautioned that Joaquin must run a multidimensional campaign against Cornyn. “He needs to remember that the Hispanic vote isn’t particularly where the big gains were made in the last election. That occurred in the suburbs and among African Americans.”

Stay tuned.

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