“She knows how to do this,” said Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “She’s one of the most experienced candidates that Republicans have. At the end of the day, she’s not going to be able to say, ‘What more could I have done?’ ”
Her race against Rep. Martin Heinrich (D) is close, and Wilson, a Rhodes scholar and Air Force Academy graduate, is counting on her ability to defy the odds and outperform expectations. And that means winning a bigger share of the Latino vote.
Recent polls show her trailing Heinrich by four or five percentage points. Wilson calls the contest “a dead heat and a horse race.”
“I, by all measures, am performing better than the average Republican,” she said.
Because of Wilson, the Senate race in New Mexico is attracting above-average national attention — not only since the state has emerged as one of a handful that will determine which party controls the Senate next year, but also because the GOP will have a chance to test whether it can repair its frayed relationship with Hispanic voters amid a divisive national debate over immigration. Wilson thinks her existing relationship with Hispanic voters is a start.
In six successful campaigns for the House, she never won less than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote — even in 2006, when she squeaked by with a 875-vote margin.
“Heather has proven over the years that she’s been competitive among Hispanic voters,” said Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, who lost to her in the Republican primary.
The question is whether Wilson, who could fly a plane before she was old enough to vote and has faced a number of tough races, can be competitive enough. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials estimates that 35 percent of New Mexico’s voters will be Hispanic this year, a share of the electorate that is higher than in any other state.
“It’s a swing state trending to the Democrats, and part of that is its cultural diversity,” said Robert Lang, director of Brookings Mountain West at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “It’s a majority-minority state with a large Hispanic population. Nevada and Colorado are truer swing states. New Mexico is a little more solidly blue, but I wouldn’t discount it if you had a moderate Republican.”
Enter Heather Wilson.
‘Jobs, jobs and jobs’
Sitting in a restaurant here, chips and salsa on the table, eight Hispanic business owners were relaying to Wilson their long list of complaints about Washington. The session of “bellyaching,” as they called it, focused on their experiences with a bloated bureaucracy, a heavy tax burden and a slow economy.