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Battleground New Mexico

By Reid Wilson

Heading into November, few states, if any, will get more attention than New Mexico. In addition to being a battleground at the Presidential level, Democrats are focused on the state's open Senate seat as well as trying to capture the First Congressional District, a task they've repeatedly fallen just short of accomplishing in recent years.

Few Senate seats look more ripe for the picking than New Mexico's. Senior Senator Pete Domenici would have been a heavy favorite for re-election despite his association with the scandal surrounding the dismissal of several U.S. Attorneys. But the six-term Republican, citing health issues, decided against seeking a seventh term. All three of the state's House members are running in today's primaries seeking to replace Domenici, marking perhaps the first time a state with three or more House seats will experience a complete slate of open contests.

Given an increasingly bitter Republican primary between Reps. Heather Wilson, of Albuquerque, and Steve Pearce, whose district encompasses much of the southern portion of the state, Democratic Rep. Tom Udall is likely to begin his general election campaign as the heavy favorite. Virtually every public poll since last November has showed Udall leading both potential rivals by margins well into the double digits, and sometimes by nearly two-to-one margins.

Most polls have also showed Pearce leading Wilson by a narrow margin, though experts caution not to count out the more moderate Wilson just yet. While Pearce has a better relationship with the state's conservative base, Wilson's reputation is as one of the strongest campaigners in the House. Last week, she picked up Domenici's endorsement (The senator has long been said to view Wilson as a protege), which could prove crucial.

A strong campaigner, Wilson has outraised Pearce as well. Through the May 14 pre-primary filing deadline, Wilson had raised $2.3 million and retained $712,000 for the final sprint to the finish, while Pearce had raised $1.75 million and kept just under $250,000 on hand. But even out-campaigning and out-spending Pearce may not be enough. Wilson "has a history of closing strong, but if she does win, it'll be an upset," said Joe Monahan, one of the state's leading political analysts. The GOP candidate will need to be well-financed when he or she faces Udall; the Democrat had raised $3.2 million through May 14 and held an impressive $2.87 million in the bank.

Wilson is seen as the better opponent heading into November by a number of political observers largely because of the district she has repeatedly won since 1998. Few districts have been as consistently held by one party than Wilson's First District -- no Democrat has held the seat since 1968. But that isn't indicative of what the GOP goes through trying to retain it every two years. Both Al Gore and John Kerry beat President Bush there, albeit by narrow margins, and the city of Albuquerque has grown increasingly liberal in recent years. Census estimates show the city makes up a little more than three-quarters of the district, with more conservative suburbs contributing the rest of the votes.

To lose Wilson in such a crucial swing district would ordinarily be devastating to national Republicans. But the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has been slammed in recent months for failing to get involved in races to make sure stronger candidates win, could hardly have found a better candidate this year. Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, twice elected by wide margins in the heavily Democratic county that encompasses Albuquerque, has a reputation as a fierce campaigner equal to that of Wilson's (NRCC chair Tom Cole told this reporter in a February interview that Wilson even said White was a better campaigner than she).

White knows he faces a steep climb. "You don't win year after year as a Republican in this district -- especially in 2006, where [Wilson] probably didn't have any business winning, the environment was so caustic to Republicans -- but this district pays attention," White told Real Clear Politics in April. "It's going to take that sweat equity to win, and I'm prepared to do that."

White, who is the heavy favorite over a much more conservative State Senator in today's primary, will likely face no easy opponent in Albuquerque city councilmember Martin Heinrich. Heinrich faces two women with Hispanic surnames -- former state Health and Aging Commissioner Michelle Lujan Grisham and former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron -- no small challenge in a district that is 43% Hispanic (A campaign aide made sure to mention that Heinrich has beaten a Hispanic-surnamed candidate before), but he has far outpaced them in fundraising and a poll for the Albuquerque Journal released this weekend shows Heinrich ahead by ten points.

In 2006, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and its Republican counterpart each dumped millions into the seat. This year, White knows he will be a target. "I understand that the DCCC has an incredible amount of cash, and they want to take back what they think is rightfully theirs. And they're going to come after this seat, and it's going to take that good old fashioned retail campaigning to win," he said. Too, White recognizes the relatively small amount of money the National Republican Congressional Committee has on hand. "We're going to use every resource possible. Will some of that come from the RNC, the NRCC? I sure hope so. But as far as my winning or losing is going to be pinned on Washington? No, it's up to me."

Heinrich, like White, is largely avoiding hits on his primary opponents and looking ahead to the general. Asked what his greatest contrast with White is, Heinrich borrows a line John McCain and Hillary Clinton have employed against Barack Obama. "It's results over rhetoric. I'm somebody who has a real track record on the city council of getting difficult legislation passed," he said. "You can talk about change, but I can point to a record of it."

At least one argument to be hashed out before November will focus on crime and public safety. And while Republicans once owned the issue, the results this Fall could indicate whether Democrats have made a significant comeback in the "tough on crime" battle. White is seen as a strong candidate not only because of his ability to win Democratic-leaning Bernalillo County but because of his background in law enforcement. That, some strategists say, has been a succcessful formula for both parties; Washington State Republican Dave Reichert, the former King County Sheriff, continues to hold his Democratic-leaning swing district, where he is known to many simply as "the sheriff" ( And Indiana Democrat Brad Ellsworth, who beat an incumbent Republican in 2006, is not expected to face a serious challenge this year in a district that will go strongly for President Bush. "Fighting crime is a pretty popular thing," White laughed. "Everybody's for arresting bad guys," NRCC chairman Cole agreed, adding that a sheriff comes to a race with "not a lot of partisan baggage."

Still, Heinrich will not concede the issue to White. "I've had a really strong record of turning public safety problems around on the ground through legislative policy, which is a very different thing than running a sheriff's department or running a police department," Heinrich said. "We'll be able to go toe-to-toe on law enforcement as well."

White's skill as a campaigner and his reputation as sheriff give Republicans a strong chance of holding onto a seat many believe should be in the other party's hands. "It's trending Dem, it leans Dem, it should be Dem," political analyst Monahan said. "But it's not going to be Dem until they count the votes." The competitive races, both at the House and Senate levels, also portend yet another close White House contest in one of just two states to flip from the Democratic to the Republican column between 2000 and 2004. The competition "is telling us that New Mexico is again going to be a swing state," Monahan said.

Udall seems the heavy favorite to take Domenici's Senate seat back for Democrats, but the true measure of the GOP's misery may lie in the battle between Heinrich and White. A White victory could mean that a good candidate can overcome a bad year for his party, giving Republicans hope in 2010. A Heinrich win could indicate a further shift, largely of Hispanic voters, to the Democratic column, even when a Hispanic candidate is not in the race. In the end, neither candidate is going to win by a comfortably large margin, and both will fly in the face of history: Can White win even when, as he's fond of saying, he has "no business" doing so? Can Heinrich win back a seat his party hasn't held since Lyndon Johnson was president? Whichever candidate bucks tradition will join his new colleagues in Washington next January.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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