(CNN) – It seems national Democrats have the candidate they were hoping for in the 2012 fight to keep New Mexico's open U.S. Senate seat in party hands.
Rep. Martin Heinrich announced his candidacy Saturday in the race for the seat of retiring five-term Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman.
"Six weeks ago, my friend and mentor Senator Jeff Bingaman announced that he would be ending his distinguished career in public service at the end of his term. Over those weeks, I have discussed at length with my family how I might best continue to serve New Mexico. After much serious thought, I am excited to announce today that I will be a candidate for the United States Senate," said Heinrich in an statement and video to supporters that he posted on Facebook and on his campaign website.
Heinrich, who represents New Mexico's first congressional district, won election in 2008 and was re-elected last November. Prior to his election to Congress, he served as Albuquerque city council president.
In his announcement, Heinrich touted his working class roots, saying that his "father was an electrician and my mom worked in a factory. My parents taught me the values that I still hold dear today, and that I believe can help anyone get ahead-hard work, honesty, responsibility, and self-reliance."
Democratic Senate sources for weeks have quietly been touting Heinrich as the strongest candidate to keep Bingaman's seat in party hands in next year's election.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee was quick to criticize Heinrich.
"A big problem for Martin Heinrich is that there is a mile-wide gap between his moderate rhetoric versus his very liberal record. Heinrich has consistently voted with the liberal wing of his party," said NRSC Communications Director Brian Walsh in a statement Saturday.
The Republicans already have a high profile candidate: Heather Wilson. The former five-term congresswoman and former Air Force officer jumped into the race last month.
Wilson ran for the Senate in 2008, losing a Republican primary contest to Rep. Steve Pearce, who was defeated in the general election by Democrat Tom Udall, a five-term congressman who is now New Mexico's junior senator. Wilson, who is considered more moderate than Pearce, could face off against him again, as Pearce has not ruled out a run for the Senate in 2012.
Another possible conservative opponent is Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, who is seriously considering a bid for his party's Senate nomination. Former congressional candidate Greg Sowards is already in the hunt for the GOP nomination.
Two of the top non-partisan political handicappers, the Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Political Report, both characterize the race as competitive.
Democrats currently have a 53 to 47 majority in the Senate. They are defending 23 seats (21 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the party) next year, with the GOP defending 10 seats.
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