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.
That provided a significant boost for Democrats in past years thanks to the party’s voter registration dominance. Martinez won in 2010, 53 percent to 47 percent, but among straight-party voters, she took only 45 percent, according to figures provided to Roll Call.
There is little expectation that Obama will match his 2008 margin in this far different environment and with the state’s two previous presidential contests decided by 1 point or less. But there is also no doubt Republicans would feel even better about their chances in a nonpresidential cycle.
One Democratic strategist with extensive experience in the state said Heinrich, even with a diminished downballot windfall, will benefit from the ground game put in place by the Obama campaign to turn out Hispanic voters in the northern and southern parts of the state, areas plush with voters Heinrich doesn’t represent. That’s a major advantage for Heinrich.
“I really would tie Heinrich’s chances for success to how well President Obama turns out and takes New Mexico,” said the strategist, who emphasized that a strong field operation outweighs TV advertising in turning out Latinos in the north.
Wilson said she is not taking the primary for granted despite a dominant performance at last month’s pre-primary convention that forced wealthy businessman Greg Sowards to petition his way onto the June 5 primary ballot. But Wilson is clearly preparing for Heinrich.
“We’ve got a likely Democratic candidate who voted for the stimulus and then voted against the balanced budget amendment to the Constitution,” she said. “He voted for cap-and-trade in one of the largest oil- and energy-producing states in the country. And then he voted against the Keystone pipeline. He voted for Obamacare.”
Still, after more than 10 years in the House, Wilson has a record of her own to defend.
“Wilson will be in a tricky spot in the fall,” Heinrich spokeswoman Whitney Potter said. “It’s hard to claim fiscal responsibility when your tenure in Congress includes maxing out the nation’s credit card on two unfunded wars, tax breaks for the richest Americans and a taxpayer-funded Wall Street bailout.”
Potter added that Wilson could also have a tough time meshing her messaging to the general electorate with her tea party outreach over the past year, which helped Wilson avoid a serious conservative challenge. Wilson says her message won’t change.
“Mr. Heinrich has done some things, which were inconsistent with what New Mexicans wanted from their federal government,” Wilson said. “And those are the things I’ve been talking about all along.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.