December 18, 2020

Voters would get to pick Haaland’s replacement in a special election

Almost as soon as the news came out that President-elect Joe Biden chose Deb Haaland as his choice to head the Interior Department, attention turned to what would happen to the 1st Congressional District seat.

If Haaland is confirmed to the cabinet-level position and resigns from the U.S. House, it would trigger a special election for her replacement. 

Related: Report: Biden chooses Haaland for Interior Secretary

At the time of a vacancy, the Secretary of State would order a special election to be held between 77 and 91 days after the vacancy occurs. There would be no primary, instead the state central committees of the major parties would choose their nominees.

If confirmed, this will be the first special election in New Mexico for a congressional seat since 1998—which was also in the 1st Congressional District, when Republican Heather Wilson defeated Democrat Phil Maloof and Green Party candidate Bob Anderson.

At the time, the 1st Congressional District was held by Republicans from the time the state earned a second congressional district in 1969 until 2009, when Democrat Martin Heinrich won. (In that time, New Mexico earned a third congressional district)

According to data compiled by the website Daily Kos, which seeks to elect Democrats, the 1st Congressional District had the best performance by a Democrat on the presidential level in the state in 2020—even more than traditionally Democratic 3rd Congressional District. 

Haaland won the 1st Congressional District race in 2018 by nearly 23 percentage points, and won the seats by 16.4 points in her 2020 reelection. These were in line with the results of the previous three elections for Democrats; now-Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham won in the 2016 Democratic wave (in New Mexico, at least) by over 30 points, after winning by 17.2 points in 2014 and winning the seat by 18.3 points in 2012. 

Still, even seats that are safe seats for one party could go the other way in a special election. New Mexico Democrats are aware of this, after Republican Bill Redmond won a special election in 1997 in the state’s 3rd Congressional District, replacing Bill Richardson, who left the seat to become the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. 

In 1998, Democrat Tom Udall defeated Redmond.