Bingaman Aide Ponders Challenge to Rep. Wilson

Posted March 12, 2007 at 6:11pm

A top aide to Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is seriously considering entering the race to topple beleaguered Rep. Heather Wilson (R) in the Land of Enchantment’s hyper-competitive 1st district.

Terry Brunner, who has been Bingaman’s state director for the past five years and managed his 2006 re-election landslide, said he has had preliminary discussions with the Senator and other Democratic leaders about the possibility of running.

“I think a race like this takes a lot of serious consideration, and it’s something I will take a close look at over the next few months,” Brunner said.

Brunner, 36, first came to New Mexico in 1994 to serve as the chief fundraiser for Bingaman, and has held a variety of political and government jobs since, while also earning a master’s degree in Latin American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He was the campaign manager for businessman John Wertheim, the 1st district Democratic nominee in 1996, then worked as a policy analyst for the Santa Fe County Commission and ran unsuccessfully for the state House of Representatives in 2000, taking 46 percent against an entrenched incumbent in a Republican-leaning Albuquerque district.

“He’d be a great candidate,” said a New Mexico Democratic strategist. “He obviously knows where the bodies are buried.”

Since barely winning a special election in 1998, Wilson has been a Democratic target cycle after cycle, but has managed to win despite the Democratic lean of the district. Her closest call came last year, when she defeated then-state Attorney General Patricia Madrid (D) by less than 900 votes, aided by a gaffe Madrid made in a televised debate shortly before Election Day.

Until last week, national and state Democrats had not focused on ousting Wilson in 2008, and there was some thought that she could have a considerably easier path to re-election than before. But that all changed a week ago when she acknowledged calling the U.S. attorney for New Mexico in October to inquire about the status of an investigation of Democratic corruption in state government. The prosecutor, David Iglesias, was fired recently by the Justice Department and the scandal over politically motivated personnel decisions by the Bush administration appears to be growing.

Democrats and government watchdog groups are accusing Wilson — and her mentor, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who made a similar call — of violating Congressional ethics rules and possibly tampering with a federal investigation. From a purely political standpoint, the revelations could be more damaging to Wilson than to Domenici, who has built up a tremendous amount of goodwill with New Mexico voters during his 35-year Senate career.

But despite the possibility that Wilson could be in political peril next year in the wake of the scandal, Democrats have no obvious strong challengers. Madrid, though a proven vote-getter in the past, is widely thought to have squandered her political capital with her ill-fated bid last year and hasn’t taken any steps to run again.

“The Democratic Party here, they’re not doing their job,” said Joe Monahan, an Albuquerque-based consultant who has worked for candidates in both parties and writes a popular political blog. “They should have a strong bench in place.”

So far, the most frequently mentioned potential Democratic challengers to Wilson are former Albuquerque City Councilor Eric Griego, current Albuquerque Councilor Martin Heinrich and state House Judiciary Committee Chairman Al Park.

“They may become first-tier [challengers] by virtue of Heather becoming second-tier,” Monahan said.

Sources familiar with New Mexico politics said that Brunner was thinking about running for the Albuquerque City Council this year until Bingaman persuaded him to aim higher and at least look at the Congressional race.

“Sen. Bingaman thinks he would clearly make a very capable candidate and he would hate to lose him in the Senate office should he decide to run,” said Jude McCartin, a Bingaman spokeswoman.

Brunner said he could be a stronger challenger than some of Wilson’s previous opponents because the Congresswoman has skillfully eviscerated the records of the elected officials who have run against her — a problem he would not have if he ran.

“Maybe it’s time to throw somebody into the race who’s a fresh face and doesn’t have baggage that she can use against him,” he said.

Despite losing in 2000, Brunner said his state legislative race showed that he can attract moderate swing voters, who play a vital role in the 1st district every two years. He raised about $40,000 for that contest, but said he is confident, given his background as a fundraiser, that he could collect the $1.5 million he figures he would need to run a strong race against Wilson, who is a prodigious fundraiser.

Wilson spent about $4.8 million on her re-election last cycle; Madrid spent more than $3.2 million.

Brunner grew up in Chicago, where his father, also named Terry Brunner, was a renowned federal prosecutor who went on to head the Better Government Association, a powerful good government group in the city. His parents are retired and now live in New Mexico — but not in the 1st district.