ALBUQUERQUE — Heather Wilson is one of the best Republican candidates, and is running one of the best campaigns for the Senate, anywhere in the country, the experts say. Her bid is built around her biography, her deep understanding of local issues and her history of political independence.
But the former congresswoman faces long odds in her quest to return to Washington because the politics and demographics of her state are stacked against her. Her essential problem is that New Mexico is 47 percent Hispanic, and those voters tend to vote Democratic, particularly in presidential election years. Barack Obama won New Mexico with 57 percent of the vote in 2008.
“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.
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.
Wilson, who represented the state’s 1st Congressional District from 1998 to 2009, took notes, nodded and asked questions. Her appeal to Hispanics here has hit one note — “jobs, jobs and jobs.”
“The unemployment rate among Hispanics is 21 / 2 times the unemployment rate among Anglos,” she said. “That gets back to why jobs is the number one issue.”
Wilson’s deliberate approach to campaigning and her moderate brand of Republicanism have won supporters among conservative Hispanics, both Democrats and Republicans.
A 51-year-old married mother of two teenagers, Wilson describes herself as a bit introverted, but she has run an aggressive campaign. “There’s going to be stark choice here,” she said in an interview. “If New Mexican voters believe the path to create American jobs is keeping taxes low, then they have an option. That’s my campaign.”
After playing up her conservative bona fides to win the primary, Wilson is running down the middle, talking about the the need for bipartisanship in the Senate, claiming the mantle of an independent and putting a little distance between herself and her party. She has said she will not attend the Republican National Convention in Tampa next month.
A biographical ad that aired this summer did not mention that she is a Republican, nor did it directly refer to her time in Congress. It focused instead on her résumé — her academic honors and military service, as well as her time on the National Security Council staff.
The chance of a Wilson victory has energized and engaged a range of national Republicans and conservative super PACs.
Democrats say they are confident, but they understand the stakes; despite Obama’s big win in 2008, the previous two presidential elections here were nail-biters. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won New Mexico by 365 votes; in 2004, Republican George W. Bush won the state by fewer than 6,000 votes. In 2010, Republicans swept the top three statewide offices, with Susana Martinez becoming the nation’s first Latina governor.
Heinrich, 40, who succeeded Wilson in her old congressional district, is working hard to keep the Senate seat in Democratic hands. The two-term House member and former Albuquerque City Council member has spent the past four years making inroads with the Hispanic community, setting up an office in the city’s South Valley neighborhood and recruiting prominent Hispanic supporters.
Roll Call and the Cook Political Report rate the race a tossup, but Heinrich could benefit from the Obama operation here. The president has six offices in the state, and he, the first lady and Vice President Biden have all visited New Mexico this year. “When a lot of folks were running away from the president in 2010, we hosted him in the South Valley,” Heinrich said. “There was so much enthusiasm. It is very hard for Republicans to overcome those demographics in a presidential election year.”
Working in Wilson’s favor is a change pushed through by the Republican secretary of state that eliminated the option to vote a straight ticket by checking just one box.
At the roundtable with Hispanic business owners, Wilson heard from Ernie Torrez, a cattle rancher in the tiny town of La Jara. He criticized the federal government’s public-lands policies that restrict cattle grazing and logging, and praised the hard line Wilson has taken on limiting environmental protections.
“I’m a Democrat, but this environmental issue to me is the issue,” Torrez said. “She understands the land-based economy and would let us make a living.”
To succeed, Wilson will have to win over some conservative Democrats, such as Torrez, along with a sizable share of independents, said Joe Monahan, a political blogger and analyst in New Mexico. It will be tough.
“Wilson has been around a long time, but when you’re reaching out to a larger part of the electorate, the Democrats’ registration advantage kicks in,” Monahan said. “Her hope would be to win the race with the independent vote. She’s kind of held down by the yoke of her Republican affiliation.”
Though the state’s demographics lean toward Democrats, Heinrich is no stranger to tough races, either. His congressional district was held by Republicans for 40 years before he won it in 2008. He is taking nothing for granted, and his staff concedes that the ground game will be vital. He has won the endorsement of several of New Mexico’s Native American tribes, and he announced his candidacy at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, just after the city’s Cesar Chavez march.
“I think the Hispanic community has gotten a lot more sophisticated in our voting,” said Clara Apodaca, president of the cultural center’s foundation and a Democratic activist whose ex-husband was governor in the late 1970s. “They used to say, ‘Oh, they vote Democrat.’ No, we look at the issues. Martin has been a friend to the community. He attends everything.”
Both candidates say immigration rarely comes up when they talk to Hispanic voters. Many Hispanics in New Mexico trace their roots in the state back 14 generations or more, and the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that the population of illegal immigrants — about 85,000, or 4.3 percent of the state’s population — is significantly smaller than in some neighboring states.
Heinrich was a co-sponsor of the Dream Act, which shares elements of the executive order Obama enacted recently that allows some illegal immigrants brought to this country as children to remain here legally.
Wilson, who said she does not think amnesty for illegal immigrants is fair, and who was one of eight Republicans to vote against barring illegal immigrants from getting driver’s licenses, is sympathetic to the plight of “Dreamers.”
“These are real lives at stake — children who were brought to this country through no decision of their own — and we owe it to them to find a long-term solution. Unfortunately, the decision today is temporary and leaves many questions unanswered,” she said after Obama announced his executive order.
Two Republican super PACs, American Commitment and American Future Fund, are running negative ads against Heinrich, hitting him on his support for the Obama administration’s health-care law and economic stimulus measures.
Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental groups — including Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters — is spending about $1 million on ads against Wilson. They cite more than $600,000 in donations she has received from oil and gas companies over her career, along with her support for tax subsidies for the state’s oil and gas industry that the environmentalists say discourage investment in clean energy.
Heinrich said Wilson, who has voted against increasing the minimum wage and who served on the board of Karl Rove’s super PAC, Crossroads GPS, is out of step with New Mexico voters.
Wilson calls Heinrich “an extreme environmental candidate,” citing his opposition to the Keystone pipeline and his support for cap-and-trade emissions policies.
Heinrich, an outdoorsman, retorts: “I think New Mexicans trust somebody who is very comfortable with a rifle or chainsaw but also cares very deeply about those places.”
Political analysts expect the candidates’ fundraising to be evenly matched. Heinrich has $1.8 million in cash on hand, according to his latest fundraising report. Wilson reported Friday that she has $1.6 million in the bank.
Judging by their congressional records, both candidates are fairly moderate. A recent National Journal analysis ranked Heinrich as the 146th most liberal member of the House, putting him in the middle of Democrats. In Wilson’s last year in the House, the magazine ranked her the 148th most conservative, putting her slightly to the right of the middle.
While in Congress, Wilson had high-profile disagreements with her party, including criticizing Bush when he resisted briefing lawmakers on his administration’s controversial domestic surveillance program. That could benefit her now.
“I’ve got a bit of an independent streak,” she said. “I’m not afraid of bipartisan compromise on issues that are important to the nation.”
That has been a lonely and sometimes politically treacherous place to be in Washington in recent years. But Wilson seems aware of the dangers. A sign outside her campaign office reads: “Speak your mind but ride a fast horse.”