There’s no coffer-draining primary, no sign of a Democratic wave and no more straight-ticket voting. But most of all it’s likely nominee Heather Wilson that has national Republicans confident in the tossup New Mexico Senatorial race.
The former Congresswoman was handed a rare opportunity for a political do-over in a state that could prove crucial to the GOP’s chances of winning the Senate majority. The race could go either way, and that’s notable given what happened in the last presidential cycle.
Wilson, who represented the Albuquerque-based 1st district for five full terms, has all but sewn up the GOP nomination for the seat of retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D). She will likely face Rep. Martin Heinrich (D), who succeeded Wilson in the House and is favored to win his primary with state Auditor Hector Balderas.
New Mexico insiders from both parties describe Wilson, an Air Force Academy graduate, as a tough and disciplined campaigner, a strong fundraiser and someone whose broad support, including among Hispanics, is in the mold of former Sen. Pete Domenici (R). There’s also no better wingman in the state than Gov. Susana Martinez, a likely surrogate whom Wilson has known for about 20 years.
“I think New Mexico is always going to be a swing state on races like this,” said Jay McCleskey, a GOP media strategist in the state and former regional political director at the Republican National Committee. “But Heather Wilson is the strongest candidate Republicans could have put up. No one runs stronger, more disciplined campaigns than she does.”
In 2008, with hundreds of thousands of dollars of outside support aiding him, Rep. Steve Pearce (R) defeated Wilson by 2 points in the primary before being walloped by then-Rep. Tom Udall (D) by 22 points as President Barack Obama swept the swing state by 15 points. In an interview, Wilson was unfazed by 2008 and Obama’s presence back at the top of the ticket.
“It is a swing state to be sure, and in all of those years from 2000 on until I left the Congress in 2008, I always significantly outperformed the top of the ballot in my Congressional district,” Wilson said. “It’s actually easier for me to win statewide than it is to hold my own Congressional district.”
Wilson will have some help beating the top of the ticket this time. Thanks to the first Republican secretary of state being elected in the past 82 years, New Mexico voting booths will for the first time in decades not offer a straight-ticket device option, which allows a voter to choose a party’s entire slate of candidates with a single selection.