GOP Wins New Mexico Seat in Special Election; Re-Match Due in November
LEGI-SLATE News Service
Wednesday, June 24, 1998
WASHINGTON Republicans beat back a big-dollar Democratic onslaught in a New Mexico congressional special election, throwing a major kink in the Democrats' national strategy to try to regain control of the House.
In a closely watched battle, Republican Heather Wilson defeated Democrat Phil Maloof by a 45 percent to 39 percent margin and kept the GOP's hold on the Albuquerque-area Congressional seat that was left vacant in March by the death of five-term Republican Congressman Steve Schiff.
Democrats will have another chance to take the seat in the November general election when Wilson and Maloof appear on the ballot again for a full two-year term. But the Democratic loss in this high-spending, mudslinging election dealt a serious blow to the party's efforts to immediately cut down the Republicans' 11-vote margin in the House and pick up a fundraising and political momentum to take them through the fall.
Instead, it was Republicans who received the boost in their own bid to solidify their control of Congress.
"Heather won the education debate in that campaign. She ran on expanding choices for parents and children, high standards for teachers, and putting money into bricks and books, not bureaucrats. That's a solid Republican message," said Rep. John Linder, R-Ga., chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
"In other words, education is no longer the Democrats' turf," Linder added.
The national party leader also boasted that the GOP victory came despite a 49 percent to 37 percent Democratic voter registration edge over Republicans. However, the congressional seat has been held by Republicans for 30 years.
Democrats, meanwhile, attributed the loss to one wild card in the race: Green Party candidate Robert Anderson, a community college instructor. He took 17 percent of the vote even though the party registered only 1 percent of voters before Tuesday's election. The Maloof campaign said Wednesday that its own review of vote totals shows Anderson drew most of his support from traditional Democratic precincts.
Maloof was "very concerned and aware of the fact that the Green Party candidate took a great deal of support," said David Thomas, the Maloof campaign manager. "There will be a very intense effort to see what can be done" to draw those votes to Maloof in November, Thomas added.
The Green Party affected a 1997 northern New Mexico special election in which Republican Congressman Bill Redmond was the surprise winner. Redmond outpolled the Democrat by three points in a traditionally- Democratic district, with the Green Party candidate siphoning 17 percent of the vote in that race.
If the third party played a significant role in the Wilson-Maloof race, it was because the voters were "turned off" by the expensive, unrestrained negative campaigning by both major candidates, said F. Chris Garcia, a political scientist at the University of Mexico.
Maloof, 31, a state senator and member of an "old money" New Mexico family, so far has spent more than $1.3 million of his personal wealth in his bid for Congress.
Wilson, 37, a former state Secretary of Children, Youth and Families who once served on President Bush's National Security Council staff, has raised more than $800,000 with the help of national GOP House leaders and Republican-friendly political action committees.
With such high political stakes, the candidates waged the most costly congressional race in the state's history and a political mudslinging contest that was micro-managed by professional political gurus in Washington.
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., complained that a "panicked Republican party threw all the money and mudrakers they had" into the special election contest but pointedly kept Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., out of the district. Gephardt said the November contest will favor Democrats because of higher voter turnout, bolstered by the state's gubernatorial contest, and a sharper focus in the fall campaigns on "the divisive, obstreperous leaders of the Republican Party."
If this was just the warm-up for the November election, the fall campaign could be a scorched earth firestorm, fueled by national party organizations.
"We started out with two candidates, both had experience in public office, moderately qualified, decent people. And somehow, the campaign turned into presenting them as ogres, unqualified, liars, rumor mongers who are the scum of the Earth," Garcia said.
It was a unique experience for a state that is used to the old- fashioned, door-to-door campaigning that has never spent more than $3 per vote in a congressional election, he added. This district has 302,000 registered voters.
"There comes a point at which the effect of money is incremental. If it had any effect at all I think it was reached a long time ago," observed the political scholar.
While Republicans cast the election as a victory for their national political agenda, the race centered on the candidates personalities, with state and local issues, including education, taking a secondary role.
Wilson will be sworn into office within the next several days, but the Maloof campaign downplayed the advantage she will have in November as the "incumbent."
"She's going to have about one month of actual work in Washington, D.C., and they go out on recess in August, and then the race starts," Maloof's spokesman said. "She has somewhat of an advantage, but it's not terribly significant."
© Copyright 1998 LEGI-SLATE News Service