Wide Open Spaces, Wide Open Seats

Posted May 23, 2008 at 5:32pm

The fall campaign is poised to clarify in the battleground of New Mexico, with four competitive June 3 primaries going down to the wire in all three of the state’s House districts.

When Reps. Steve Pearce (R), Tom Udall (D) and Heather Wilson (R) decided to run for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Pete Domenici (R), they set off competitive primaries in the state’s House districts. In the southern New Mexico 2nd district, there are competitive primaries in each party, while the Albuquerque-area 1st district and northern New Mexico 3rd district are each witnessing hard-fought Democratic primaries.

Gov. Bill Richardson (D) is expected to endorse former Lea County Commissioner Harry Teague over Doña Ana County Commissioner Bill McCamley in the 2nd district Democratic primary, and state Public Regulation Commissioner Ben Lujan over wealthy Santa Fe homebuilder Don Wiviott in the 3rd district. Those endorsements could prove critical in the final days.

Despite his unsuccessful White House bid earlier this year, Richardson remains popular at home. He was due to endorse Teague and Lujan “any day,” according to sources at press time on Friday.

Lujan is the son of state Speaker Ben Lujan (D), and the support he garners from the Hispanic Democratic machine in the 3rd district could be too much for the more than $1.3 million in personal funds that Wiviott had spent on the race as of a week ago.

“It’s gotten very nasty between the two of them, but I think Lujan wins,” said one knowledgeable Democrat based in New Mexico. “It’s a district that will almost always default to the Hispanic candidate — especially one from a well-known and well-liked political family.”

In the 2nd district Republican primary, the National Association of Realtors political action committee reported one week ago that it had spent almost $1 million in independent expenditures on behalf of former Hobbs Mayor Monty Newman, a Realtor by trade and a former NAR official. That investment should put Newman in the top tier of candidates in that crowded primary.

Wealthy restaurateur and 2002 candidate Ed Tinsley (R) was an early favorite in the 2nd district. But the National Association of Realtors’ support of Newman has shaken up the race and put Tinsley’s chances in some doubt. Retired banker Aubrey Dunn Jr., a former Democrat who had dumped over $537,000 of his own money into the race as of Thursday, could also walk away with the victory.

Tinsley has been on district-wide television with what one Republican insider referred to as “terrific” ads, and has picked up some key endorsements in the crucial Doña Ana County area, including that of former Gov. Garrey Carruthers (R). He has also blanketed southern New Mexico with direct-mail hits that are critical of Dunn and Newman.

Dunn, who won the mid-March pre- primary nominating convention, has seen his status as a potential favorite in the race diminish in recent weeks. He has dropped negative mail on Newman and Tinsley, with Newman remaining mostly positive in his ads, much like Pearce did in 2002 when he won a competitive GOP primary in part by being the positive alternative in the race.

“Newman’s cash advantage because of the Realtors could really propel him to the nomination,” said a Republican insider based in New Mexico. “Tinsley looks the most Congressional on TV, while Dunn got out to an early lead. I doubt, at this point, that he’s going to hold on.”

The uncertainty that exists heading into the fall was generated first by Domenici’s decision to retire after six terms. It continued when Pearce and Wilson then decided to vacate the GOP-leaning 2nd district and Democratic-leaning 1st district, respectively, to seek Domenici’s post, and deepened when Udall did the same, opening up his solidly Democratic 3rd district.

Predictably, both Democrats and Republicans are forecasting successful general elections for the parties. Considering New Mexico’s status as a swing state that went narrowly for former Vice President Al Gore (D) in the 2000 presidential election but for President Bush by a point in 2004, either could end up on the winner’s platform in November.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee believes a diminished GOP brand and Bush’s cratering approval ratings will finally put Democrats over the top in the 1st district, which they have targeted for years, while also giving them a strong chance for victory in the 2nd district, which has a majority of enrolled Democrats but is generally Republican territory because of the conservatism of the area’s voters.

Teague is almost universally viewed by both Democratic and Republican strategists as the Democrat with the best chance of winning the general election in the 2nd district. One New Mexico-based Republican strategist said a Teague win in November was “likely,” as long as he makes it through the Democratic primary.

The National Republican Congressional Committee disagrees.

“Come November, New Mexico will prove to be the land of disenchantment for Democrats,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said. “The quality of our Republican candidates running in both seats could not be any better.”

The likely Republican nominee in the 1st district, Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, has been elected to his current position by most of the voters who live in the district, which has been held by a Republican for 40 years. White also could benefit from the high regard in which New Mexico voters hold their law enforcement officials (Udall built his strong reputation during two terms as state attorney general).

White is expected to easily beat state Sen. Joe Carraro in the GOP primary. On the Democratic side, strategists following the race between former Albuquerque City Councilor Martin Heinrich and former state Health Secretary Michelle Lujan Grisham classify the race as anywhere from “leaning Heinrich” to “probably Heinrich.”

However, Heinrich is being pushed hard by Lujan Grisham.

She has been on television with an ad featuring senior voters and her work as state secretary of aging and state health secretary. Heinrich, whose second television spot of the campaign is now up and running at twice the gross ratings points as Lujan Grisham’s, features his plans to reverse course from Bush’s policies if he is elected.

“New Mexico families want change,” DCCC spokesman Yoni Cohen said, expressing optimism that the Democrats would be successful this fall in both the 1st and 2nd districts. “They’ll elect Democrats.”