New Mexico Senate: Simply Enchanting

by Nathan L. Gonzales June 13, 2008 · 3:00 PM EDT

New Mexico will be one of the top presidential battlegrounds this fall, and Republicans are keeping their fingers crossed that the state hosts a hot Senate race as well.

Democrats cleared the field for Cong. Tom Udall, and he starts the general election with a significant lead over Republican Cong. Steve Pearce. Pearce just secured the GOP nomination on June 3 with a narrow victory over House colleague Heather Wilson.

GOP Sen. Pete Domenici’s retirement created the difficult open seat hold for the Republicans. And now, Pearce has to regroup, replenish his depleted campaign funds, and figure out a way to run against the national environment that still favors the Democrats.

The Lay of the Land
The Land of Enchantment has been very competitive in the last two presidential contests. Al Gore won New Mexico 47.9%-47.8% in 2000, but President George W. Bush won it four years later 49.8%-49.0%. Bush won Pearce’s 2nd Congressional District (58%-41%), but lost both Wilson’s 1st District (51%-48%) and Udall’s 3rd District (54%-45%).

That’s about where the good news ends for Republicans. Six out of eight statewide elected officials are Democrats, with the retiring Domenici and Commissioner of Public Lands Pat Lyons being the only Republicans.

Gov. Bill Richardson (D), first elected in 2002, cruised to reelection last cycle with 69%. Democrats also control the state Senate (24-18) and the state House (42-28). And Democrats have a 49%-33% voter registration edge in the state.

The state is 45% white and 42% Hispanic, which is part of the reason why Republicans believe Sen. John McCain (R) can be successful on the presidential level.

Albuquerque is by far the largest city, with a population of 448,607, and its media market blankets over 85% of the state. Las Cruces (74,267) is the next largest, followed by Santa Fe (62,203), Rio Rancho (51,765) and Roswell (45,293).

Domenici was first elected to the Senate in 1972. He was reelected six years later with 53%, but then never fell below 65% in his next four races. Domenici is the second most senior Republican in the Senate and joins colleagues Wayne Allard (R), John Warner (R), Larry Craig (R), and Chuck Hagel (R) as this year’s retirements.

The Democrat: Udall
Tom Udall, 60, was born in Tucson, Arizona and now lives in Santa Fe. He graduated Prescott College with his B.A. in 1970, received his B.L.L. from Cambridge in 1975 and his J.D. from the University of New Mexico in 1977.

Udall privately practiced law and worked as chief counsel to the state department of health and environment.

He comes from very thick political bloodlines. His father, Stewart Udall was a congressman from Arizona and secretary of the interior under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. His uncle, Morris “Mo” Udall, was also an Arizona congressman and a candidate for president in 1976.

Tom’s cousin Mark Udall is a Democratic congressman from Colorado and running for an open Senate seat as well. Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith (R) is also Tom’s cousin and is running for reelection this cycle.

Before Congress, Udall’s electoral record was dotted with victories and defeats. He worked as an assistant U.S. Attorney until he ran unsuccessfully for the House in 1982, losing to Bill Richardson. Six years later, Udall won the nomination but lost the general election to Steve Schiff (R).

In 1990, Udall was elected state attorney general, where he served two terms. And finally in 1998, Udall defeated conservative Cong. Bill Redmond (R), who had won the seat in the special election to replace Richardson when he left to become President Clinton’s United Nations ambassador.

After his initial 53% win, Udall has coasted to reelection with no less than 67% of the vote. He spent about $400,000 in his non-race last cycle.

Udall serves on the Appropriations Committee, and over the last five years, has voted with the Democratic Party an average of 97% of the time.

The congressman did not jump into the race immediately. Developer Don Wiviott and Albuquerque Mayor Marty Chavez were the initial candidates, with Lt. Gov. Diane Denish another possibility.

But Udall was recruited to run and the other hopefuls evaporated or were shoved aside. Wiviott switched to Udall’s open congressional seat, but finished second in the primary.

Udall’s campaign team includes Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for polling and Murphy Putnam for media.

Even though he didn’t have a primary, Udall ran television ads in the weeks leading up to the primary. He first ran two ads simultaneously statewide, including spillover markets of El Paso and Amarillo, Texas.

His first ad, “What’s Right,” a 60-second spot, features his grandmother and some of his biographical and legislative accomplishments, mixed with sweeping scenery shots. “The integrity to do what’s right for New Mexico,” says the narrator.

The Democrat has also run a 30-second spot entitled, “Same Opportunity,” which talks about Udall’s father’s military service and the need to improve veterans’ benefits.

Udall’s third ad, a 30-second spot entitled, “Crush,” talks about the alternative energy and the economy. “The George Bush economy is crushing America. Gas prices at record highs.” The ad doesn’t mention Pearce at all, but Pearce already used Udall in an ad against Wilson.

The Republican: Pearce
Steve Pearce, 60, was born in Lamesa, Texas and earned his B.B.A. from New Mexico State in 1970. He served in the Air Force from 1971-1976 and flew missions in Vietnam. He later earned his M.B.A. from Eastern New Mexico University in 1991.

The Republican worked in the oil well services industry, specializing in oil well parts, and lives in Hobbs (located in Lea County in the southeast corner of the state).

In 1996, Pearce was elected to the state House, where he served two terms. In 2000, the Republican ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, placing a distant second in the three-way Republican primary to Bill Redmond, 60%-22%.

But two years later, Cong. Joe Skeen (R) retired, and Pearce ran for the open seat. First, he defeated a crowded primary field that included restaurateur Ed Tinsley, who just won the primary to succeed him in the 2nd District. And second, Pearce won the general election easily, 60%-40%, over Gary King, the son of long-time governor Bruce King and a candidate that Democrats hyped.

Gary King is now the state attorney general. In 2006, Pearce defeated minister Al Kissling, 59%-41%, spending over $1.3 million along the way.

Pearce represents the largest geographic district in the state, covering the southern half of New Mexico. He sits on the Financial Services and Natural Resources committees.

During his first four years in office, the congressman supported President Bush an average of 93% of the time, and the Republican Party 97% of the time. He’s conservative on social issues but does favor comprehensive immigration reform.

The Pearce campaign team includes Arthur Finkelstein for general consulting and polling, Jeff Norwood of Anthem Media for media, and Dan Hazelwood of Targeted Creative Communications for direct mail.

The GOP Primary
Heather Wilson started the Senate primary contest as the favorite, even though both she and Pearce are sitting members of Congress.

A November 16-18 SurveyUSA poll gave Wilson a 19-point lead, but Pearce slowly closed the gap and was six points up in late May, according to Research and Polling Inc.

The fight was a fairly typical Republican soiree. Pearce ran as the “true conservative,” while Wilson ran as the mainstream conservative.

Pearce claimed there was “only one conservative” in the race and sought to equate Wilson with Udall votes to raise taxes, fund “abortion providers,” and allow illegal immigrants to get state-approved drivers licenses.

Wilson’s ads called her the “commonsense conservative” and attacked Pearce for “mothballing” Cannon Air Force Base and cutting Social Security for “widows and orphans.” (Pearce responded to that charge with a to-camera ad.)

Wilson also played the electability card. One ad said, “Steve Pearce -- wrong for New Mexico. With that record, he can’t win in November.” Wilson also had the late support of Domenici.

The Club for Growth was also heavily involved in the race for Pearce. The Club attacked Wilson as a “liberal congresswoman” who supports Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi on “government-run health care,” as well as raising taxes and wasteful spending.

“When it comes to this year’s budget, tell Wilson to vote like Pearce,” said one ad. “Tell Heather Wilson to stop wasting our money.”

The Defenders of Wildlife, which has endorsed Udall, actually ran ad saying that it was a “flip of the coin” between the Republicans, attacking Wilson for the U.S. attorney controversy, Pearce for selling his oil company, and both of them for not doing enough on gas prices.

In the end, Pearce narrowly prevailed 51%-49%, and Wilson promptly endorsed her competitor. That’s good because Republicans will need all of their energy to catch up with Udall.

How It Plays Out
Voters will have a clear choice in the general election between the conservative Pearce and the liberal Udall. Both men have a long history of being party guys, but in this electoral environment, it’s generally better to have that “D” behind your name.

Domenici’s retirement, coupled with candidacies by Pearce, Wilson, and Udall means that four of the five federal offices in New Mexico will have freshman members. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) will be the only one with seniority.

Pearce is playing catch-up in the polls and has to beat back some perception that he was the weaker general election candidate. Conventional wisdom said that Wilson’s moderate record would be more appealing to voters in the middle, and her electoral success in a more marginal district would have come in handy.

But early polling in the race didn’t support Wilson’s claim or conventional wisdom. An October 23-27 Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates poll for Udall showed him leading Pearce (50%-33%) and Wilson (52%-36%) by similar margins.

A November 5-7 Research 2000 poll for the liberal website DailyKos had Udall ahead of Pearce 54%-37% and Wilson 55%-38%. The survey also showed Udall with a 51% favorable/28% unfavorable rating compared to Pearce’s 42% favorable/35% unfavorable. The polling, overall, has been remarkably consistent.

While Pearce is more conservative than Wilson, he doesn’t have some of her baggage. Both the congresswoman and Domenici are tied into the controversy surrounding the firing of U.S. attorney David Iglesias.

But anyway you slice it, Pearce has some serious ground to make up. A May 12-14 SurveyUSA poll showed Udall leading Pearce by 24 points (60%-36%) while a May 30-June 1 Survey USA poll had the margin at 25 points (60%-35%).
Pearce hasn’t done any general election polling yet, but his supporters assume he’ll be down, at least in part because of Udall’s strong name identification in the state.

Pearce points out that he was down significantly in the primary but came back to win, but, of course, his party wasn’t a liability, the way it will be in the general election.

Meanwhile, Democrats are confident, but not comfortable. They believe the state is trending Democratic and the public’s desire for change will benefit their nominees. Sen. Barack Obama leads McCain by about six points in the state, according to private polling.

The attacks in the race are likely to be standard fare. Republicans will portray Udall as too liberal, arguing that he has supported wasteful spending and tax increases, and is partially to blame for rising gas prices for being unwilling to tap domestic reserves.

Democrats will portray Pearce as being too conservative. They plan to go after him for his ties to the oil and gas industry, for not supporting the new GI Bill, and for voting for the war in Iraq. Udall has been against the Bush Iraq policy from the beginning and wants troops redeployed within a year.

Pearce won’t shy away from his resume, noting that he had a blue-collar job in the oil field, and that he represents a large number of oil and gas companies in his district and in the state. With the current cost of gas, Pearce will have to work hard to turn it into a positive.

According to one Democratic operative, even though Pearce is more conservative than Wilson, he comes across well in ads and on the stump. Republicans believe their candidate is battle-tested, compared to Udall, who hasn’t had a competitive race in years.

In order to win, Pearce will have to rack up his margin in the 2nd District, temper Udall’s lead in the 3rd District and stay competitive in Albuquerque (Bernalillo County).

George W. Bush lost Bernalillo by four points in 2004 and two points in 2000 and was competitive statewide. Pat Lyons (R) won it by eight points last cycle in his successful statewide run. The county makes up 34% of the vote.

The next largest county is Santa Fe County with almost 9% of the vote. It’s in Udall’s district and heavily Democratic. Bush lost it by 37 points and 43 points but was still competitive statewide. Lyons lost it by 35 points.

Dona Ana County (Las Cruces) has about 8% of the vote. While it’s in Pearce’s district, it is more Democratic, and he probably can’t afford to lose it by more than four points.

Sandoval County (north of Albuquerque and west of Santa Fe) has about 6% of the vote and is in Udall’s district. Bush won it narrowly both times, but Lyons took it by 10 points. San Juan County in the northwest corner is another 6% and Pearce needs to win it by at least 20 points.

The remaining 28 counties each take in less than four percent of the vote each.

Both Udall and Pearce have already aired television ads statewide, but the Democrat starts the general election with a clear cash advantage.

Udall raised over $3.2 million through May 14 and finished the pre-primary period with almost $2.9 million on hand. Pearce raised almost $1.8 million through the May 14 pre-primary period but had just $247,000 on hand because of the primary spending.

The Bottom Line
In the end, the race isn’t likely to be won or lost because of money. It’s the political climate that is likely to cost Republicans the seat. It’s going to be difficult for any Republican to overcome a 20-point deficit without a serious flaw from the Democratic candidate.

The general election has just started, so it remains to be seen how voters in the middle perceive Pearce and Udall. Republicans believe people want balance in their delegation, and want Pearce to balance out Bingaman. New Mexico has had a split senate delegation since 1982 when Bingaman knocked off incumbent Harrison Schmitt (R).

But right now, voters are primed for change more than anything, and Udall starts with a considerable advantage in that argument. Lean Takeover.