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Action in the Land of Enchantment

Reps. Heather A. Wilson and Steve Pearce are vying to be the Republican candidate for the Senate seat held by the retiring Pete V. Domenici.
Reps. Heather A. Wilson and Steve Pearce are vying to be the Republican candidate for the Senate seat held by the retiring Pete V. Domenici. (By Dean Hanson -- Albuquerque Journal Via Associated Press)

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By The Sunday Fix Chris Cillizza And Ben Pershing
PLAYERS and PLAYERS
Sunday, June 1, 2008

Looking for a state that will serve as a microcosm for the battle for the House, Senate and White House this fall? Look no farther than New Mexico. Yes, New Mexico.

The state will be a central front in the presidential race and also will feature an open Senate seat -- the result of the retirement of the legendary Pete V. Domenici (R) -- as well as vacancies in all three of the state's House seats.

"It's a voter's and a political junkie's dream," said Stephen Ward, chief of staff to Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). "This cascade of open offices, caused by the state's first open Senate seat in 36 years, and the resulting large number of competitive races, is absolutely unprecedented."

The action in the Land of Enchantment will begin in earnest on Tuesday with a series of competitive primaries. Here's what to expect:

Senate: The Republican primary between Reps. Heather A. Wilson and Steve Pearce has been expensive and brutal, as the two have traded charges for much of the last six weeks. The race began as a dead heat, but strategists familiar with the contest expect Pearce to emerge victorious. The dynamic in the race is both ideological and geographic. Pearce's record is far more in line with conservative orthodoxy, and he -- with a major assist from the Club for Growth, which dropped $600,000 on ads in the race -- bashed Wilson as liberal on taxes and spending issues. From a geographic perspective, the candidates are expected to run strong in their political base; for Wilson, that is her Albuquerque area 1st District, while for Pearce, it's his vast southern 2nd District. That leaves the northern 3rd District held by Rep. Tom Udall, the Democratic front-runner in the Senate race, as the battleground. Pearce appears to have won that jump ball by linking Wilson's congressional voting record to Udall's, an effective message to reach Republican primary voters in the 3rd.

1st District: Wilson's departure creates a vacancy in one of the swingiest districts in the country. She has held the seat since winning it in a 1998 special election, but Democratic presidential candidates John F. Kerry (Mass.) and Al Gore carried it in 2004 and 2000, respectively. Sensing their vulnerability, the Republican establishment quickly lined up behind Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, and he should cruise to the nomination. The Democratic race is far more complicated, with former Albuquerque city councilman Martin Heinrich and former secretary of state Rebecca Vigil-Giron the front-runners. Heinrich, running as the liberal champion, recently launched an ad alleging that "for the last eight years, George Bush has left middle-class families in the dust."

2nd District: Pearce has held this district easily since 2002, but Democrats think the national atmosphere could make them competitive in the fall. Both sides have interesting primaries. The Republican race is a three-way affair among Ed Tinsley, who ran the last time the seat was open in 2002; Aubrey Dunn Jr., a wealthy rancher; and former Hobbs mayor Monty Newman. Democrats are in the midst of a two-way battle between Doña Ana County Commissioner William J. "Bill" McCamley and former Lea County commissioner Harry Teague. Teague has two things going for him that suggest he will be considered the favorite: He is wealthy, having donated more than $750,000 of his own money to the campaign, and he has the backing of Gov. Bill Richardson, the key political power broker in the state.

3rd District: The action in this northern New Mexico seat, which went comfortably for Kerry and Gore in the past two presidential elections, is in the Democratic primary. The leading candidates are Public Regulation Commissioner Ben Ray Lujan and developer Don Wiviott. Lujan has been endorsed by Richardson and former interior secretary Stewart Udall and has strong backing among party establishment types, thanks in large part to his father, state House Speaker Ben Lujan. Wiviott, who originally ran for the Senate, has spent more than $1.3 million of his own money on the contest, dropping much of that cash on direct mail and ads hitting Lujan. It should be close, but Lujan is the favorite.

Pockets of Strength

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) wrote to Democratic superdelegates last week to make the argument for why she would be a better general-election candidate than Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and her letter was accompanied by a deluge of charts and maps to bolster her case.

Clinton tried to back up her argument by including a list of recent general-election polls in every state. State-level polls are not always reliable, and the entire presentation should be taken with a grain of salt since it's a campaign document, but the Sunday Fix was still intrigued by the poll chart and what it might mean for down-ballot races.

Nine of the states on the chart showed a split result (with one Democrat supposedly leading McCain, while the other trailed), and five of those states have competitive Senate or House races. Let's look at each one:

Colorado (Obama advantage)


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