Rep. Martin Heinrich (above) is facing former Rep. Heather Wilson for the Senate seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman. The race is close, and both candidates have outside groups adding support and money to the contest.
It may not be a presidential swing state this year, but New Mexico is at the heart of the fight for the Senate.
Recent polling, fundraising and third-party spending reports illustrate just how competitive the race between Rep. Martin Heinrich (D) and former Rep. Heather Wilson (R) is less than four months out.
After the second fundraising quarter, Heinrich had a slight edge over Wilson in both cash on hand and polling. Democrats expect the state’s demographics and a victory for President Barack Obama to put Heinrich over the top come November, but the race remains too close to call.
“Martin Heinrich holds an early lead against Heather Wilson,” independent New Mexico pollster Brian Sanderoff said. “However, it’s too early to predict the outcome of the race. In all likelihood the race will narrow.”
The two candidates have represented the Albuquerque-based 1st district for the past 14 years combined. In interviews with Roll Call, each claimed a proven record of Hispanic support and a message better suited to the broad electorate.
In an increase of nearly 25 percent since 2000, Hispanics now make up 46 percent of New Mexico’s population, by far the highest of any state in the country, according to 2010 census figures. This demographic accounted for 41 percent of the state’s 2008 electorate.
“I think if you look at past polling data, you’ll see that I’ve consistently received better numbers with Hispanics than a Republican needs to win statewide,” Wilson said in a telephone interview Monday. She reiterated that point in a Wednesday briefing with reporters at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
At a coffee shop a few blocks from the Capitol last week, an hour after voting against a repeal of Obama’s health care law, Heinrich said he had won about two-thirds of the Hispanic vote in past elections, which would be more than enough for a Democrat to win statewide.
“People call it a lean-blue state,” said Heinrich, who succeeded Wilson in 2008, when she retired to run for Senate. “When you’re north of 60 percent with Hispanic voters and you’re doing well with Anglo Democrats as well, it is a lean-blue state. But you have to have that turnout.”
Obama visited New Mexico in March, and unlike some of his fellow Democratic Senate candidates, Heinrich hopes the president swings by again as the elections near. The president stopped in Albuquerque’s South Valley about a month before the 2010 midterm elections, which the Congressman survived despite a national Republican wave.
Wilson needs presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney to keep the margin smaller than in 2008, when Obama won the state by 15 points. But if the presidential contest doesn’t get more competitive, Heinrich conceded that his campaign will likely need to pick up the slack on field operations, a vital program to turn out Hispanic voters.
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