If Sen. Martin Heinrich runs for president in 2020, it’ll be easy to mark the moment he became a contender for the office.
Earlier this month, New Mexico’s junior senator confronted Attorney General Jeff Sessions with a basic question that quickly went viral: Was there a legal reason why he was not answering senators’ inquiries?
“My understanding is that you took an oath, you raised your right hand today and said you would solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And now you’re not answering questions,” Heinrich said. “You’re impeding this investigation.”
The exchange immediately drew attention online: Heinrich began trending on Twitter, setting off a flurry of jokes about his appearance and some genuine speculation about his political future.
How long until someone writes a Heinrich 2020 speculation piece
— Igor Bobic (@igorbobic) June 13, 2017
Quick! First person to float Martin Heinrich as the 2020 presidential nominee gets a byline in Politico!
— Ian Millhiser (@imillhiser) June 13, 2017
Heinrich/Harris 2020 or Harris/Heinrich 2020, I’m good with either. #SessionsHearing
— May Brian (@mabri1741) June 13, 2017
— Diane Keddie (@dkbufny) June 13, 2017
But if Heinrich sees himself as a potential challenger to President Donald Trump in 2020, he hasn’t told many of the people in New Mexico.
Conversations and emails with ten state Democrats who have worked with the senator at various points in his political ascent produced a consensus view of the senator as a no-nonsense policymaker with ambiguous aspirations for higher office at best.
“That is not a conversation that is happening here,” one in-state Democrat operative said when asked about Heinrich’s 2020 ambitions. “He’s got a re-election campaign coming up, he’s focused on the Senate. That’s really what’s happening here.”
Heinrich’s decision to avoid the spotlight has largely kept him off the long lists of Democrats itching to run against Trump in 2020.
Of the 21 Democrats on Politico’s 2020 speculative list, Heinrich is absent. While Hill listed 43 potential Democratic candidates, which includes Hollywood celebrities like The Rock and Oprah Winfrey, it did not mention the New Mexico senator.
But Heinrich’s omission from the list of potential contenders hasn’t surprised many Democrats from his home state, who question whether Heinrich has the appetite for a presidential run in 2020, or ever.
“He has an excellent reputation here in New Mexico,” Bernalillo County Democratic chairman Bill Peifer said. “However, I don’t think that the junior senator from tiny (population-wise) New Mexico would do well on the national stage. I’m sure that if the 2020 nominee would ask him to run for vice president he’d agree, but that particular choice is usually dictated, in part, by who hails from a ‘must win’ state.”
“But Martin is young and has plenty of time to make a national name for himself. Perhaps in 2024 or 2028 . . . who knows?”
While much of the public discovered Heinrich earlier this month, he’s been viewed as a rising star in New Mexico politics over the past decade and a half.
After moving to New Mexico on a whim with his wife, Heinrich developed a reputation as a soft-spoken, yet firm environmentalist and conservationist on the Albuquerque City Council. His advocacy for electric vehicles and increased city use of solar and wind power caught the eye of then-Gov. Bill Richardson in 2006 to be the state’s Natural Resources Trustee.
He ran uphill battles first for the House in 2008, then for the Senate in 2012,
Though he’s clashed occasionally with progressives in state — he took heat from state progressives for opposing a bill that would’ve suggested Congress draft legislation re-importing cheaper pharmaceuticals from Canada, though the vote was more complicated than many supporters suggested — his positions on energy and environmental issues has endeared him to many on the left in the state.
As a city councilor, he championed a higher minimum wage and stronger labor protections, as well as greater health care access for Native Americans, garnering him a glowing profile in the Nation.
Since being elected to the senate in a similarly tough 2012 race, he cosponsored the DREAM act, but has been most active as a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee — according to GovTrack, almost 70% of the bills he sponsors are directly related to energy and natural resources.
And his life in public service has kept his means relatively modest. According to Roll Call, in 2015 he was the least wealthy member of the US Senate, and one of the ten least wealthy members of Congress.
For now, the New Mexico senator appears focused on his reelection in 2018, though the campaign is far away for many people in state. Only one Republican — businessman Mick Rich — has declared their candidacy, while termed-out Republican governor Susana Martinez hasn’t firmly ruled out a bid against Heinrich, though her unpopularity in the state could prove a challenge.
Several New Mexico Democrats acknowledged that although Heinrich was not the type of campaigner who feeds off energy in the rooms like former President Bill Clinton, his relationships with core Democratic constituencies in New Mexico has strengthened his campaign appearances.
Richardson, who said he consults with Heinrich occasionally, said he’s “not a showhorse,” and said although his political skills are “deeply underestimated,” the question for many is Heinrich’s own ambition.
“What happens in politics is your ambition evolves,” Richardson said. “He has the right stuff if he decides to run. He has the intellect, he has the boldness, he has the experience, he has the presence. The question is: Does he have the interest?”