by John Daniel
Today’s retirement announcement by five-term Senator Jeff Bingaman recalls to mind the election back in 1982 that launched his remarkable career. That was the year Bingaman challenged a sitting Senator, a one-term incumbent whose name just recently popped back into the news — Harrison Schmitt. (link link link)
Bingaman’s 1982 campaign was particularly noteworthy in that it really represented the emergence of the state’s environmental community as a major player in New Mexico politics.
After winning a tough primary against former Governor Jerry Apodaca, Bingaman went into the general election as the underdog, trailing Schmitt in the polls until catching him in the final days. The pivotal event in that race were negative TV ads aired by Schmitt that backfired.
Here’s is how Time magazine described that race:
NEW MEXICO. Harrison Schmitt, 47, first rocketed to fame in 1972 when he landed on the moon as an Apollo astronaut. That feat helped propel him into the U.S. Senate in 1976. But in a state with an unemployment rate hovering around 10%, Reagan’s economic programs hurt Schmitt badly. State Attorney General Jeff Bingaman, 39, constantly linked Schmitt to the White House and called attention to his lackluster six years of service. But Schmitt may have largely engineered his own defeat. The Senator attacked his opponent with a pair of ads blasting Bingaman’s record as attorney general, a post he has held since 1978. One spot attacked Bingaman’s handling of a 1980 prison riot inquiry, while the other accused him of requesting a pardon for a prisoner who had once been on the FBI’s most-wanted list. Both commercials turned out to be based on inaccurate information. So incensed was Santa Fe Archbishop Robert Sanchez that he publicly denounced the prison inquiry ad, an invaluable boost for Bingaman in a state that is one-third Hispanic and largely Catholic. At the polls, Bingaman brought Schmitt back to earth, 54% to 46%.
And that’s the way it was, 29 years ago.