Over the course of her ten-year career in the U.S. House, Rep. Heather Wilson (R., N.M.) has always been a target. She’s weathered more than $20 million in opponents’ political spending to win six straight elections, four of them nail-biters (earning her the Bush-nickname “Landslide”). Watch Wilson in a debate, and any doubts about her political skills disappear. It was just such a one-on-one contest in 2006 that proved the downfall of her favored Democrat opponent, Attorney General Patricia Madrid.
Depending on who you ask, Wilson is anything from conservatives’ powerful adversary to their ally in the race to replace the venerable retiring Sen. Pete Domenici (R). In the only competitive GOP Senate primary of 2008, Wilson faces conservative Rep. Steve Pearce (R., N.M.), the state’s other Republican representative. Whoever wins will be the underdog in a race against liberal Rep. Tom Udall (D., N.M.), who with $2.6 million has more than twice as much cash on hand as either Republican.
“Adversary” may overstate the case. She more resembles the center-right Kay Bailey Hutchison (R., Texas) than the liberal Olympia Snowe (R., Maine). Like Pearce, she receives an “A” from the National Rifle Association. She cannot compete with Pearce’s perfect pro-life record, but she has voted about 80 percent pro-life over her career.
Yet “ally” isn’t quite right either; without question, Pearce is the true conservative in the June 3 primary. He has received the endorsement of the Club for Growth, National Right to Life, and the Susan B. Anthony List. His lifetime rating with the American Conservative Union (94) is substantially higher than Wilson’s (80), and in recent years the difference has been much more pronounced. Wilson scored just 67 in 2006, with deductions for votes on immigration enforcement, federal funding for destructive embryonic research, and the House conservatives’ budget. Her “RePork Card” score is 10 percent, whereas Pearce’s is 80 percent.
“From a conservative standpoint, Pearce is far and away the better candidate,” said Paul Gessing, a former Washington activist who now heads the non-partisan Rio Grande Foundation in Albuquerque. “It’s tough to say who would be able to beat Udall.”
Not all New Mexican Republicans express such uncertainty about the November contest. “Pearce is a great guy — he votes the way we like him to vote,” said Corky Morris, one of the state’s Republican old guard and an old fundraiser and close acquaintance of Ronald Reagan. “But I really think that Heather runs better against Udall.” State Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle (R) expressed a similar sentiment.
So did state senator Rod Adair (R): “I have not formally endorsed anybody, but I don’t think there’s much question that the only Republican who can beat Udall is Heather Wilson.”
Pearce’s spokesman, Brian Phillips, dismisses such talk. Pearce, he said, already holds down a district that is 60 percent Democratic in voter registration, and he will score well in the rural parts of Udall’s current congressional district, once the Democrat’s very liberal (lifetime ACU rating: 4 percent) record is laid bare in a contested general election. “Udall has high name-recognition,” said Phillips. “It makes sense that he would be up early on.”
The latest Rasmussen poll has Pearce performing better than Wilson against Udall, even if both trail badly. And Wilson’s statewide unfavorable rating, at 52 percent, is 12 points higher than Pearce’s. Wilson has been vetted by repeated and close elections, but she also suffered recently from the same U.S. Attorney-firing controversy that added a sour note to the end of Domenici’s career.
Still, to see Wilson and Pearce in a debate is to understand how she can tempt even a conservative. In their April 25 back-and-forth in Los Alamos, Wilson was agile and aggressive, exploiting the fact that that city is home to a major Department of Energy laboratory whose budget was nearly cut last year. She wasted no time at all attacking Pearce in her opening statement for a vote he took to cut Department of Energy funding across the board.
“The Department of Energy spends more money in New Mexico than in any other state in the nation,” she said. “What exactly were the $1.3 billion in cuts to the Department of Energy that you wanted?” Pearce’s flat-footed response gave Wilson two more opportunities to back the truck over him as the debate progressed. Pearce was awkward to watch, and he saved all his attacks against Wilson for the very end, after letting her call herself a “common-sense conservative” and “pro-life” for more than 90 minutes.
Pearce, a Vietnam veteran who made his fortune in the oil-services business, is a serious candidate, not some second-stringer. In the absence of any current head-to-head polling, several New Mexico Republicans — including some who back Wilson — consider him the favorite for the nomination, his debate performance notwithstanding. He successfully organized his delegates to seize the top ballot spot in the state party’s March 15 pre-primary nominating convention. He represents a greater number of the state’s Republicans than she does, and his $850,000 war-chest is more than sufficient to compete with Wilson’s $1.2 million for the next month.
Last week, the two Republicans began attacking each other with television ads, mostly over who missed critical votes in Congress — a banal issue that probably won’t appeal to most voters. Two different Republicans thought the ads petty enough that each separately and without prompting compared them to the destructive Clinton-Obama race that still dominates the national Democratic stage. “They’re killing each other to the point that neither one may have a chance of winning,” said Mickey Barnett, a lawyer and lobbyist in Albuquerque.
Others disagree. “We’re not playing ring-around-the-rosie here,” said Ingle, a Wilson supporter. “People have donated money and you’re trying to win.”
Whoever becomes the nominee, Republicans hope the defense of Domenici’s seat is not as hopeless as it currently appears. New Mexico is a heavily Democratic state in terms of voter registration (51 to 35 percent), such that, as one Republican campaign consultant put it, “You have to be a lot smarter than they are to win anything.” Udall has the cash and the high favorables. And even if John McCain (R., Ariz.) carries the state’s five electoral votes, New Mexicans have proven themselves enthusiastic ticket-splitters over the years.
As 2008 smiles upon Democrats nationwide, many New Mexico Republicans lament that this had to be the year for a contest that rolls the dice on nearly all of the state’s congressional representation — two competitive Republican House seats and the Senate seat that Domenici has held securely since 1972.
“It’s a real tough year for this race,” said Ingle. “There could have been better years to have this contest happen.”
– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.