A Seismic N.M. Shift?

Posted March 5, 2007 at 6:35pm

Just a week ago, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) looked like a shoo-in for a seventh term. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), after winning the most bruising race of her life in November by fewer than 900 votes, seemed like she’d have a much easier time in 2008.

But in a flash, all that has changed.

With both Republicans accused of improperly seeking to influence ongoing federal investigations of New Mexico Democrats, the political terrain in the Land of Enchantment may be shifting rapidly.

House Democrats now vow to put Wilson at the top of their target list again in 2008. And Senate Democratic operatives, whose best hope for winning the New Mexico seat hinged on Domenici making a late decision to retire next year at the age of 76, openly suggest that the state’s most venerated officeholder could be vulnerable if he follows through on his plans to seek re-election.

“I think all bets are off now,” said a Democratic strategist with ties to New Mexico. “You’ve got to see how it plays out.”

The eyes of New Mexico’s political insiders will be riveted on Capitol Hill today, when a handful of deposed U.S. attorneys — including David Iglesias, who until recently held the post in the Land of Enchantment — are scheduled to testify before a Senate committee about their firings.

Iglesias last week accused two Members of Congress, whom he would not name, of pressuring him just weeks before Election Day 2006 to expedite his investigations of Democratic scandals in New Mexico. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Reps. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) quickly denied that they had made the calls.

Only on Sunday did Domenici admit that he had had conversations with Iglesias about his investigations, among other things — and that he had urged the Bush administration to replace Iglesias. Wilson, as of press time Monday evening, has remained completely silent on the matter.

But Democrats are being anything but silent. With the specter that both lawmakers could become the target of ethics probes on Capitol Hill, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released a withering statement about Wilson on Monday evening.

“Heather Wilson’s silence is deafening — if she didn’t do anything wrong, why won’t she say so?” DCCC Communications Director Jennifer Crider said in the statement.

Equally significant, Democrats in Washington, D.C., and in New Mexico, despondent over their inability to oust the Congresswoman in the previous cycle and resigned to the idea that she probably would have a much easier path to re-election in 2008, have renewed their determination to mount a vigorous challenge. They argue that Wilson’s reputation as a straight shooter has forever been tarnished.

“What we saw last cycle was that when ethics was an issue, Democrats had an issue to play — and win with,” Crider said in an interview.

But perhaps more surprising is the Democrats’ insistence that they can put Domenici’s seat in play next year — even if he does seek another term.

“This is a serious problem for Pete Domenici, and there are ongoing questions that need to be answered,” said Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “This is a story that appears to be something that’s going to remain in the public eye for the foreseeable future.”

With Wilson keeping silent on every aspect of the flare-up and Domenici’s camp declining to answer questions on the political implications, Republicans have yet to mount a major defense of the two lawmakers.

In an interview Monday, George Buffet, the Republican national committeeman from New Mexico, called the matter “a tempest in a teapot” and said any possible wrongdoing by Domenici and Wilson pales in comparison to an array of Democratic scandals in state government.

Moreover, while Democrats may be excited by the prospects that Domenici and Wilson are weakened politically, there are no obvious contenders yet to take either on.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is seen as the Democrats’ strongest possible candidate for Senate in 2008, but he is running for president at the moment and has expressed no interest in switching gears and running for the Senate. Udall also is considered a strong potential Senate candidate, but he recently was assigned to the House Appropriations Committee. Udall is far more likely to run for Senate if the seat becomes open.

Still, one knowledgeable Democrat said that if the political situation worsens for Domenici, both Richardson and Udall may have to consider a Senate run. The money Richardson is raising for his White House run can be transferred to a Senate campaign account, and Udall finished 2006 with a healthy $718,000 in his campaign account.

Both Lt. Gov. Diane Denish (D) and Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez (D) have begun preparing gubernatorial bids for 2010, when Richardson will be termed out, but party strategists believe one could be persuaded to switch to the Senate race if Domenici falters.

“I think everybody has to take a second look at this,” the knowledgeable Democrat said.

There is no shortage of ambitious Democrats who would run for Wilson’s Albuquerque-based 1st district seat if she decided not to seek re-election. But no candidate had stepped forward to challenge her in 2008.

In the previous cycle, national and state Democrats invested millions of dollars on then-state Attorney General Patricia Madrid (D), a veteran political brawler and proven vote-getter who decided to take Wilson on. Madrid appeared to be leading slightly until late in the campaign, when Wilson exploited a gaffe Madrid had made in their lone televised debate and used it to great effect in a negative TV ad.

Democrats are split on whether Madrid would make the best candidate to challenge Wilson again in 2008. Some believe a fresh face would do better and mention state Rep. Al Park (D), the 30-something chairman of the state House Judiciary Committee, as a possibility.

Park said on Monday that he was “flattered and humbled” by the recent attention but could not focus on a possible Congressional bid until the legislative session ends in two weeks.

One political blogger in New Mexico suggested Monday that Iglesias, the ousted U.S. attorney, could be persuaded to switch parties, become a Democrat, and challenge Wilson. But Democratic sources in Washington and Albuquerque said that rumor had no basis in reality, so far as they could tell.

Wilson’s woes could have implications beyond her own re-election prospects. National Republicans generally view her as the strongest possible candidate to succeed Domenici should he decide to retire. Now, they may shift their focus to Pearce, who also is known to be interested in a statewide run.

Rachel Van Dongen contributed to this report.