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How Will Republicans Take Advantage of Bingaman’s Retirement?

New Mexico’s Jeff Bingaman announced his retirement Friday, making him the fourth member of the Senate Democratic caucus to have done so since the start of the year.

Since Mr. Bingaman was a popular figure and would have been heavily favored to win re-election, this news is almost pure downside for Democrats. While the obvious question will be whether Republicans are poised to take advantage of this event, perhaps the more relevant question — since it’s much too soon to have a sense for what the overall political environment will look like next November — is how New Mexico compares to the rest of the country.

New Mexico, after voting for Al Gore in 2000 but George W. Bush in 2004, gave Barack Obama 57 percent of the vote in 2008. Indeed, over the course of the last ten presidential elections, New Mexico has grown somewhat more Democratic, going from what I call a “maroon” state (somewhere between red and purple) to an “indigo” state (somewhere between purple and blue):

That is not to suggest that New Mexico is no longer a competitive state; it is one where Democrats could lose in a bad election cycle or with an inferior candidate. Democrats received something of a split decision there in 2010, a strong Republican year nationally: Democrats held on to two of the three U.S. House seats in the state and won 51.6 percent of the vote for the Congress statewide, while also retaining control of both chambers of the state legislature. But Republican Susana Martinez won the gubernatorial election by roughly 7 points. In an environment that resembled 2010, the race for Mr. Bingaman’s senate seat would be a toss-up.

If the environment is more neutral in 2012 — somewhere between where it was in 2010 and 2008 (when Democrat Tom Udall won his U.S. Senate race by 24 points) — Republicans would be within striking distance, but would probably need to run the better candidate or the better campaign.

The most intriguing Republican name is that of their former governor, the strongly libertarian-leaning Gary Johnson. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling found that Mr. Johnson remained reasonably popular and ran even with or slightly ahead of potential Democratic candidates. The questions are to whether Mr. Johnson would be interested in the seat, since he may run what is likely to be a fairly quixotic campaign for the Republican presidential nomination instead, and if he were to run, whether he would win his primary.

On the plus side for Mr. Johnson, New Mexico’s Republicans selected the more moderate candidate, Ms. Martinez, rather than the more conservative Allen Weh, as their gubernatorial candidate in 2010. And Mr. Johnson’s libertarian positions are consistent in principle — if not necessarily in practice — with those of the Tea Party. Still, the Public Policy Polling survey found that his favorability ratings were only slightly better among New Mexicans who voted for John McCain in 2008 than those who voted for Barack Obama, so the primary would not necessarily play to his strengths.

If Mr. Johnson is not nominated, Republicans will probably wind up with former U.S. Representative Heather Wilson, or current U.S. Representative Steve Pearce, who ran against one another for the party’s Senate nomination in 2008. In recent years, Mr. Pearce has generally gotten results that are no better, and perhaps slightly worse, than what might be expected based on the local and national political environment in the races he was running. Ms. Wilson’s performance has been slightly more encouraging — she narrowly held onto her House seat in 2006, for instance, in an increasingly Democratic-leaning district — but statewide polls suggest she has become somewhat unpopular.

Democrats, likewise, have a number of competent candidates but few standouts: current Representatives Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan, former Representative Harry Teague, and former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who lost to Ms. Martinez in the gubernatorial race last year, are all possibilities.

The one New Mexico Democrat whose name might first spring to mind — former Governor Bill Richardson — is a less likely candidate since his popularity atrophied after accusations surfaced of pay-to-play dealings, which may have prevented him from becoming Secretary of Commerce. In the recent Public Policy Polling survey, just 34 percent of New Mexicans approved of his job performance against 55 percent disapproving.

The Public Policy Polling survey showed two of the Democrats, Mr. Lujan and Mr. Heinrich, running ahead of the Republicans, Ms. Wilson and Mr. Pearce, by margins ranging from 8 points to 15 in hypothetical matchups.

Most of that, at this early stage, simply represents New Mexico’s somewhat Democratic-leaning partisan tilt. Still, as the state has just three congressional districts and as New Mexico has tended to cycle through the same candidates every year, all of these names are relatively familiar to New Mexicans. Candidates like Ms. Wilson and Mr. Pearce would probably need either a political environment comparable to 2010, or a gaffe by the Democratic nominee, to do better than come close.

But Republicans might be looking to gamble on a higher-risk, but potentially higher-reward candidate, whether it ends up being Mr. Johnson or another alternative. Otherwise, New Mexico is a state that could magnify Republican gains if they are having a strong year, but is somewhat unlikely to be a majority-maker for them if they are having an average one.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.