By Jeri Clausing
ALBUQUERQUE — Heather Wilson is an experienced campaign scrapper who weathered five tough House races to keep a 10-year Republican hold on the swing district that represents most of the state’s largest city.
But as she battles her successor for a prized election to New Mexico’s open U.S. Senate seat, she has had a hard time attracting the crossover voters she’ll need to help the GOP regain the coveted post.
Wilson is running against Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who replaced her four years ago when she gave up her 1st Congressional District seat to seek the Republican nomination to succeed her mentor, senior Republican Sen. Pete Domenici. But she lost a tight primary to fellow Rep. Steve Pearce, who in turn lost the race to Democrat Tom Udall.
That gave Democrats both of New Mexico’s U.S. Senate seats for the first time in more than 30 years, But the GOP going into this campaign had high hopes of retaking the seat of retiring Democrat Jeff Bingaman as part of its national effort to gain control of the chamber.
“The pundits assumed that this race would be a competitive one, and they also assumed that the presidential race would be tighter,” said Brian Sanderoff, president of Albuquerque’s Research and Polling, whose latest poll earlier this month showed 48 percent of likely voters backing Heinrich and 39 percent supporting Wilson. Nine percent of voters were undecided and 4 percent favored Independent American Party candidate Jon Barrie. That same poll showed Obama leading Republican Mitt Romney by 10 points.
Although the state for more than 30 years split its two Senate seats between Domenici and Bingaman, only a third of the state’s voters are registered Republicans, meaning Wilson needs to appeal to independents and crossover Democrats.
One of Wilson’s newest ads is clearly aimed at such crucial voters, featuring four Democratic women supporting Wilson because of her independence. And she remains confident that she will be part of a GOP wave that sweeps the country in November.
“I’m just seeing what is happening nationwide, and this may turn out be another 1980 election,” she says in reference to the year Republican Ronald Reagan defeated one-term Democrat Jimmy Carter for president amid the Iran hostage crisis and a bad economy.
Barring some last minute surprise, however, political observers question whether Wilson can bounce back this time.
“Anything could happen in politics,” Sanderoff said. “Of course with early voting, if some scandal is going to happen, it better happen.”
A coalition of environmental groups backing Heinrich came out swinging immediately after the June primary, with a $1.5 million advertising campaign that, among other things, blamed Wilson’s past votes for supporting oil and gas company policies that it said poisoned New Mexico drinking water. One ad showed black water coming out of a school drinking fountain.
And while Wilson has raised about $6.2 million — more than Heinrich’s $5.9 million — she never gained the upper hand as the state that had been identified early as a battleground for both the Senate and presidential races fell further and further on the competitive charts. Its status as a Democratic state was all but solidified at the end of August when the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee pulled $3 million in air time it had reserved for Wilson and moved the money to more competitive races. A few weeks later, the Republican party pulled three key national staffers who had been sent to support presidential Mitt Romney’s campaign and moved them to Colorado and Nevada.
“I think Wilson really is suffering from a lack of Romney efforts in the state, him pulling out so early,” said Gabriel Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico.
“I don’t think she has made any major flaws or had any major setbacks in her campaign,” Sanchez added. “It’s just somewhat unfortunate for her that we’re in an election cycle where enthusiasm overall is down, particularly among some of those swing Democrats.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has helped pick up some of that slack for Wilson, spending more than $1.8 million in the race. And Karl Rove’s American Crossroads Group joined the fray this week with a mailing that hits Heinrich for his support of the so-called Dream Act that would give some young illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. Wilson opposes any form of amnesty as part of immigration reform.
On Wednesday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has floated a Republican alternative to the Dream Act, joined GOP Gov. Susana Martinez in rallies for Wilson in New Mexico. At the same time, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Texas Rep. Charles Gonzalez, chair of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, were here to support Heinrich.
Campaign ads from both sides have played nonstop across the state since the June primaries, but the race has been largely predictable, mirroring in many respects the rhetoric of the presidential race on issues like energy policy, taxes and balancing the budget. They have also sparred over who has been better at protecting funding for New Mexico’s military installations and national laboratories.
Unlike the presidential race, however, there have been no embarrassing gaffes. And Heinrich and Wilson both are experienced politicians who excel at staying on message, to what some consider a monotonous extreme that reveals little about their true personalities beyond their family history and work resumes. Heinrich, 41, an engineer and former Albuquerque city councilor, is the son of blue-collar workers. Wilson, 51, comes from a family of pilots. She is an Air Force Academy graduate and a defense consultant. Both are married with children.
Asked what the biggest differentiating factor is between the two candidates, Wilson says, “This is all about jobs. And how do we get to back to strong economic growth and job creation. We have very different views on that. I want to keep taxes low. He wants to increase taxes on those upper two brackets.”
Heinrich’s response to the same question: protecting the middle class.
“I believe that makes the rest of our economy strong as well,” he said. “I think she has taken a different approach, deregulate Wall Street and protect tax breaks for some very wealthy people.”