Party Feud Could Affect New Mexico GOPers

Posted March 31, 2004 at 6:20pm

What does the recent drunk driving arrest of a promising young state legislator have to do with the re-election prospects of President Bush, Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) and other Republicans in the Land of Enchantment?

Not much, on the surface.

But as a civil war rages within the New Mexico Republican Party, any diversions or divisions in the GOP ranks could prove problematic for Republican candidates, who will need party unity and discipline to prevail in competitive races. And after state Rep. Joe Thompson (R) was arrested last month, the skirmishes between the two warring factions seemed to intensify.

On Wednesday, state Republican Party Chairwoman Ramsey Gorham — leader of one of the factions — abruptly resigned, citing among other reasons her desire not to hurt GOP candidates.

“I do this with a heavy heart but have concluded that the forces that want to split our party will continue to do so regardless of the consequences to President Bush’s re-election campaign and our efforts to win back the State Legislature,” Gorham wrote to members of the state Republican executive committee.

The executive committee had been scheduled to meet Tuesday to vote on whether Gorham would be allowed to stay on as chairwoman while retaining her seat in the state Senate. Facing the prospect of a nasty primary in her Albuquerque district, Gorham also announced that she would not seek re-election to the Legislature.

What happens next for the New Mexico Republican Party is difficult to predict.

But several GOP leaders, including some of the key players in the feud, tried to minimize the political fallout from the ongoing infighting.

“My view is, it will have very little effect ultimately on anything,” said Mickey Barnett, the Republican national committeeman for New Mexico. “It involves at the most several dozen people, maybe a few hundred at the outside.”

Spokesmen for Wilson and Bush said their candidates have strong relationships with both factions in the state party and insist they aren’t worried about the electoral ramifications. But some observers suggest they should be.

“I don’t sense an overwhelming Republican enthusiasm in all corners,” said Joe Monahan, who operates a popular Web site on New Mexico politics.

Democrats — who have tried in vain to knock off Wilson and are eager to keep New Mexico in the “blue” column this presidential election year — are enjoying the GOP’s internecine struggle.

“Any energy you expend on matters other than the November election is sure to distract you and hurt your candidates,” said Courtney Hunter, political director for the state Democratic Party.

Some Republicans say the problems go back a long time — maybe even to the 1976 presidential nomination fight between Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.

But the recent round of tensions have gotten worse since the GOP lost the governorship in 2002, and they can probably be traced back a few years earlier, to when then-Gov. Gary Johnson (R) introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana.

Many Republican state legislators hated the measure. But Johnson’s handpicked state party chairman, John Dendahl, played hardball with the reluctant lawmakers to get behind their governor.

Thompson, a moderate 30-something lawmaker who had previously served in the Johnson administration, as chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley (R), was an early supporter of the measure. But he turned out to be one of the exceptions.

Most Republicans in the Legislature turned their back on Johnson, led by Gorham. So perhaps it was inevitable when Bill Richardson (D) was elected governor in 2002 (Johnson was term-limited) that Gorham would challenge Dendahl, who had served as chairman since Johnson became governor in 1995. She won.

Dendahl has since become a syndicated political columnist in the state and frequently throws barbs at his GOP rivals — when he isn’t bashing Richardson.

But Thompson’s own career was not diminished. For starters, he had another powerful patron in Barnett, the Republican national committeeman who is a Dendahl ally (Thompson was a lawyer in Barnett’s plugged-in Albuquerque law firm). Years earlier, Barnett had ruffled feathers in the GOP establishment by ousting ex-Rep. and former Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan for the RNC post.

Last year, Thompson was elected state House Minority Whip and this year he launched a statewide campaign for the Public Regulation Commission. Unlike many Republicans, he worked well with Richardson — and even co-sponsored a measure this year to stiffen DWI penalties that the governor signed into law.

But just hours after attending Richardson’s bill-signing ceremony on March 2, Thompson was busted for drunk driving in downtown Albuquerque. Almost immediately, he dropped out of the statewide race and announced he was seeking treatment.

Seeing Thompson, one of the Dendahlites’ biggest stars, vulnerable, the so-called Gorham wing of the party went on the attack, according to news accounts. Thompson was accused of hypocrisy, and was urged (some would say warned) not to seek re-election (thus enabling one of the Gorhamites to gain the GOP nomination for his state House seat). He let last month’s filing deadline elapse without declaring for re-election.

Things escalated even further. On the filing deadline for the June primary, the former executive director of the state GOP under Dendahl announced that he would run against Gorham for her Senate seat. News accounts have since surfaced detailing his youthful arrest record — which Gorham’s detractors believe is no accident.

Dendahl and Barnett’s allies next insisted that Gorham choose between being a state Senator and being the party leader, and forced a special meeting of the central committee to vote on whether she was violating party rules by serving in both roles. That meeting, presumably, is no longer necessary.

Meanwhile, the Gorham wing is actively recruiting a challenger to Barnett for the RNC post when the state GOP next convenes in June. Their choice appears to be a former state Senator, but one of the names bandied about earlier was that of Bradley, Thompson’s lieutenant governor.

Gorham had reached the point, according to Monahan, where she “sees the Dendahl-Barnett forces behind every tree.”

Gorham and Tom Carroll, her handpicked executive director of the state GOP, did not respond to telephone messages this week.

Sources said that Bush’s political team is aware of the New Mexico in-fighting and is pressing for some sort of truce.

But John Sanchez, Southwest regional coordinator for Bush’s re-election campaign, said he is not concerned about its effect on Bush’s prospects of winning the state.

“I’m very pleased to report that it’s much to do about nothing,” Sanchez said. “Even though there were, early on, minor differences and machinations, the Republican Party of New Mexico is galvanized behind President Bush’s re-election.”

Similarly, Jane Altweis, finance director for Wilson’s re-election, said the Congresswoman remains friendly with all factions in the GOP dispute.

“We’re looking forward to getting everybody together to get the job done,” she said.

Still, Wilson has never won more than 55 percent of the vote in her races, and she faces a likely rematch with state Senate President Pro Tem Richard Romero (D), who has the full backing of Richardson’s political machine this time.

“The Democrats in New Mexico are working hard to put together a unified front and keep our troops in order,” said Hunter, the state Democratic official. “We’re not getting mired in these internal party battles.”