New Mexico’s Battle Royal

Posted March 21, 2008 at 6:28pm

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Red or green?
Pearce or Wilson?
New Mexico’s unofficial state question refers to one’s preference for red or green chile peppers — a ubiquitous ingredient in the Land of Enchantment.

But it could just as easily describe the stark choice before New Mexico Republicans in the June 3 Senate primary that pits Rep. Steve Pearce against fellow Republican Rep. Heather Wilson.

It is an increasingly competitive contest that is ripe with contrasts and shaped by the unusual political atmospherics of a state not necessarily in tune with the rest of the country.

Pearce represents the solidly conservative, southern New Mexico 2nd district. He is running as a ruby-red conservative who has voted consistent with Republican principles on the House floor and will tell you exactly where he stands on an issue, regardless of the political consequences.

Signaling that his strategy might work, Pearce beat Wilson by 9 points, 55 percent to 46 percent, in a March 15 vote of New Mexico Republican Party activists held in Albuquerque to determine their preference in the race.

Pearce’s victory at that pre-primary nominating convention was good for bragging rights and favorable placement on the June 3 ballot, though its impact beyond that is debatable.

Wilson represents the Democratic-leaning, Albuquerque-area 1st district. She is staking her claim as a practical, “common-sense” conservative who best mirrors New Mexico’s status as a swing state and is most like the political icon she and Pearce are vying to replace — retiring six-term Sen. Pete Domenici (R).

Wilson has repeatedly defied the political odds and defeated highly touted Democratic candidates in a Congressional district that delivered 51 percent of its vote for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004. Implicit in Wilson’s message: Only she can beat the presumptive Democratic nominee, Rep. Tom Udall, in November.

Udall is the son of former Interior Secretary and ex-Rep. Stewart Udall (D-Ariz.). He served two terms as New Mexico attorney general before ascending to Congress and is a political force in his own right. He is also likely to have popular Gov. Bill Richardson (D) on his side — Democrats contend the failed presidential candidate still has coattails in New Mexico.

Although Udall has represented the solidly Democratic, northern New Mexico 3rd district since 1998, he maintains high name recognition and a sterling political reputation throughout the state courtesy of his tenure as state attorney general. That position has often proved to be a steppingstone to higher office in New Mexico, as it did for five-term Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D).

Supporters of both Pearce and Wilson are convinced that their candidate — and only their candidate — has what it takes to beat Udall in November. Backers of each contend the same qualities that make them formidable general election candidates make them unbeatable in the primary.

“Pearce is going to win, because he is the conservative candidate that has represented the views and values of the people of our party since he’s been a Congressman. And Heather has flip-flopped,” said Eric Lucero, 50, an Albuquerque resident and Pearce supporter who works in the health care field.

“I understand that people are going to argue that she’s been in a somewhat problematic district,” continued Lucero, a Pearce delegate at the state GOP’s pre-primary nominating convention. “But she has been back and forth, back and forth; and he has been a guiding light and he has been consistent, and that’s why Republicans are going to go for him.”

But not all conservative Republicans are singing Lucero’s tune.

Helen Hare, a 64-year-old retired educator from Bloomfield, a small town in New Mexico’s northwest corner, supported former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) for president and described herself as a strong Republican. She is partial to Wilson.

“I like her background,” said Hare, who last Monday showed up at San Juan College in Farmington to hear Wilson speak to local business leaders. “I think the fact that she did go to the Air Force Academy — she has a very strong work ethic. I think she’s a morally very upright person. She’s a family lady; she’s strong; she’s a no-nonsense person.”

St. Pete

Both candidates are claiming the Domenici mantle as their rationale for general election viability.

But while the primary contest is the immediate concern, the Udall juggernaut awaits, forcing both Pearce and Wilson to make their case for November even as each tries to one-up the other for June.

Pearce partisans claim the Congressman has the frank style and infectious personality that proved successful over the years for Domenici.

Wilson’s fans argue that the Congresswoman’s record of political moderation and putting the state’s interests above party ideology best reflects what has contributed to Domenici being affectionately referred to at home as “St. Pete.”

Pete Domenici Jr. attributed his father’s success to a little of both, noting that the Senator speaks fluent Spanish and is a committed Catholic in a state that is staunchly Catholic and 42 percent Hispanic.

“His biography fits hand and glove with the political demographics of New Mexico in a way that is exceptional and unique and probably not capable of being repeated,” said the younger Domenici, a 48-year-old attorney who lives in Albuquerque.

Wilson’s political patron over the years has been Domenici. He encouraged her to run for the 1st district when the seat opened up, and he is believed to be supporting her unofficially, although he has declined to endorse her outright.

On the heels of his state GOP nominating convention victory on March 14, Pearce was working his 2nd district base — stopping in the small town of Santa Rosa, a community of about 2,750 located 114 miles due east of Albuquerque, to thank local Republicans for their support.

Pearce was relatively unknown outside the 2nd district before launching his Senate bid last year. He has chosen to counter Wilson’s strength in Albuquerque — New Mexico’s population center with a quarter of the state’s 2 million residents — by driving up his numbers in the many small towns like Santa Rosa that dot New Mexico’s 121,589 square miles.

On a Sunday evening, the day after Pearce won the state GOP nominating convention, Leonard and Carrie Rice, with their three young children in tow, stopped by the single-building Luna Community College in downtown Santa Rosa to hear Pearce speak and to participate in the question-and-answer session that followed.

They’re among New Mexico’s more right-of-center Republicans, and they express no doubt that they will support Pearce on June 3.

Like many of the 25 or so Republicans who turned out to see Pearce that evening, the Rices are concerned about the direction of the country’s social values.

But the Rices and their neighbors also want a good education for their children — and they’re looking to Pearce for leadership in that regard.

When asked what she likes about Pearce, Carrie Rice, a 31-year-old stay at home mom, described him as “straightforward.” She believes he can win the GOP primary and defeat Udall in November because he is “people’s people” and “relates better to the common person.”

Still, her 35-year-old husband, Leonard Rice, a New Mexico Department of Fish and Game employee, recognizes that the candidate he favors will be tested in both the primary and the general.

“Where I am from, he stands in a little bit higher esteem than Heather Wilson does, which is southern New Mexico,” he said. “But as far as the state engine, I don’t know. Because this is a really strange state.”

Wilson’s journey to the northwest corner of New Mexico last Monday — deep into the heart of Udall’s 3rd district and near the “Four Corners” where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet — symbolizes what all three Senate candidates must do to be successful: learn the issues and develop a relationship with voters outside their home districts.

Her battle with Pearce is in part a contest of numbers — who wins each of the state’s three Congressional districts, and by how much. Pearce is expected to win his home district, the 2nd.

The race could turn on how large or small Wilson’s victory is in her heavily populated home turf, the 1st district, and on how each candidate does among Republicans in the majority Democratic 3rd.

Braving first a hail storm and then a blizzard — by dusk the sun was shining again — Wilson toured industrial sites and heard from local government officials in Aztec, Bloomfield and Farmington in an effort to understand the economic challenges faced by San Juan County, population 125,000.

Only 6 percent of the county’s 5,000 square miles is privately owned and open to development; the rest is federal government property.

Among the stops on Wilson’s tour that day: a Raytheon Co. missile systems manufacturing plant located on an Indian reservation near Farmington; a budding 80-acre industrial park in Bloomfield, a site in Aztec where a Pepsi plant is expanding and FedEx is breaking ground on a new facility; and a business incubator hosted by the San Juan College Quality Center for Business.

Wilson was given a very warm reception that day when speaking to business leaders at a meet-and-greet and tour of the college’s business center sponsored by the San Juan County Economic Development Service.

But Jasper Welch, executive director of the college’s business center, expects the Pearce-Wilson contest to be a battle.

“New Mexico is many peoples, many cultures. It’s very economically both rich and poor,” said Welch, 54, who splits his time between Farmington and Durango, Colo., and formerly served as Durango’s mayor.

“It’s a state that has a lot of fabric and a lot of history. … Really the oldest civilized part of the United States is Santa Fe and Taos. That’s where the action was long before people showed up at the other end,” he said.

New Mexico’s economy has been somewhat shielded from the economic crisis gripping the nation because it is so heavily dependent on federal government spending and the energy industry.

Housing sales are down, but not as much as elsewhere. Energy prices are high, but those same high prices are good for New Mexico’s oil and gas economy. Voters are concerned about Iraq and worried about the economy, but local economic issues and a concern about the quality of education tends to override national issues and cross party lines.

On the Stump

When Domenici first announced he would retire, the betting money in Washington, D.C., was placed on Wilson. Pearce surprised many by getting into the race, but he has since kept pace with Wilson on fundraising and has led her in some recent private polling.

In an interview between stops on her tour of industrial sites in San Juan County, Wilson expressed pride in her House voting record and refused to concede ground to Pearce in terms of who is the more consistent or better Republican.

She said she believes in low taxes and strong national defense, and that the family is the fabric tying society together.

But over and over, whether in her speech before state GOP delegates at the pre-primary nominating convention or before business leaders at San Juan College in Farmington, Wilson keeps returning to the central theme of her campaign: electability.

In her words: “I am a common-sense conservative who can win in November.”

Wilson said she has won tough elections every two years in a competitive district.

“I have historically over-performed,” she said, before adding: “I think we need to govern, and govern effectively. Sometimes that means you build coalitions that are unusual to get things done for the people of New Mexico.”

Wilson declined to say outright that Pearce would be a weaker candidate against Udall.

But that’s how the three-term Congressman from Hobbs, near the Texas border in southern New Mexico, interprets her sales pitch.

Pearce responds by noting the conservative nature of many of New Mexico’s registered Democrats, who tend to vote Republican.

In fact, Pearce’s district is majority Democrat. But it is a reliably GOP district because 2nd district Democrats have more in common philosophically with the national Republican Party than with the Democratic Party.

Democrats in the 1st and 3rd districts, however, are more typical, and tend to lean left.

“I think electability lies with the values that are being talked about, not with this idea that we have to shift left to win the general. I don’t think that’s true at all,” Pearce in an interview while visiting Santa Rosa.

Both Pearce and Wilson argue that Udall’s political strength is overestimated. His House voting record reveals a politician who is far more liberal than most New Mexico voters, they contend.

Udall doesn’t have a primary, and has thus far been able to concentrate on raising money — not necessarily his strong suit — and building his campaign organization.

Those who have followed his career say Republicans might be right about his voting record, but are conveniently leaving out the real reason why he is such a formidable general election candidate.

“He’s a genuinely nice person. It comes across,” said Fred Nathan, the executive director of Santa Fe think tank Think New Mexico and an aide to Udall when he was state attorney general. “I don’t think voters of New Mexico are so concerned about ideology as much as, ‘Do I trust this person, what’s this person’s character, what’s this person’s integrity?’”