Former New Mexico congresswoman Heather Wilson (R) has tried this before. In 2008, she ran for the U.S. Senate but lost narrowly in the primary to Steve Pearce. That might have been fortunate for Wilson’s future political prospects. In a victorious Democratic election cycle, Pearce went on to get clobbered by Tom Udall by more than 20 points, while President Obama carried the state by 14 points. In 2012, however, the political landscape has changed, and Wilson’s prospects to take back a seat from the Democrats looks good. But why would she want to work in a dysfunctional place like the U.S. Senate?
Wilson told me on Tuesday during our interview on Capitol Hill that what is appealing about the Senate is the chance to “shape the agenda.” That’s something the current Democratic leadership, which refused again this week to pass the budget, certainly hasn’t done.
Wilson got her start in national politics under the tutelage of a New Mexico legend, Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, for whom she has great admiration and affection. In the Senate, he was a tough negotiator, but back in New Mexico, she said, “He was just ‘Pete.’ ” Her other model is former senator Jack Danforth (R-Mo.), a conservative respected on both sides of the aisle and a man with a wonkish devotion to policy.
Wilson is a conservative in what has lately been a blue state. But like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, she is the sort of Republican who has successfully rounded up votes from independents and Democrats. She told me, “I became a Republican because I trust people more than I trust government” to make important life decisions. And as important, she said, “After Vietnam, the Democrats became fundamentally the anti-military as a party.” As a former Air Force officer and a National Security staffer (for President George H.W. Bush), she is all too aware that in a crisis we don’t have time to rebuild a depleted military; A responsible, long-term plan for defense spending has to be in place.
Wilson is greatly concerned about the sequestration of defense funds, a result of last year’s Budget Control Act. “I opposed [the BCA] for three or four reasons. One of them was the devastating impact [in the event the supercommittee failed] on national defense,” she told me. She calls it “confounding” that Democrats and the president would insist on going forward with cuts that the defense secretary opposes. “Excuse me, your secretary of defense says this will be ‘devastating’ to our national security, and you’re not going to do anything?” she rhetorically quizzed the president in absentia. She explained that she is in favor of “scrubbing” the defense budget to get rid of wasteful spending, but the meat-ax approach is foolish and dangerous, she argued.
It’s no secret that defense spending is a critical part of the New Mexico economy. The Los Alamos National Laboratory alone has a $21 billion impact on New Mexico’s economy and accounts for about 24,000 jobs. In February, Wilson took the president to task for budget cuts at LANL: “A little over a year ago, President Obama made a commitment to modernize our nuclear weapons complex in order to maintain a safe, reliable nuclear deterrent at lower levels of forces. That commitment included replacing a 60-year-old facility at Los Alamos for handling plutonium. In his new budget, however, President Obama has broken that commitment. And as a result, an estimated 1,000 jobs will be killed for 10 years in Los Alamos.”
Her criticism of the president’s foreign policy is much broader than merely the defense budget, however. She argued that Obama seeks “to curry favor with our adversaries while turning our backs on our allies.” She cited the Libyan operation. “He delayed two weeks to get the approval of the Arab League,” she told me with incredulity. “And he never got it from Congress?” She said bluntly that worrying about approval from “people who really don’t like us very much” is unwise.
As for Iran, she commented on the recent opening of talks in which the parties agreed to meet again in May. “Maybe I’m too cynical,” she deadpanned, “but if your objective is to put pressure on Israel to not act, and to not pressure Iran, this is just what you would do.” She conceded that perhaps the president is simply naïve and getting suckered into “a rope-a-dope” game where Iran continues on its quest for nuclear weapons.
If in her Senate race, Wilson faces the current Democratic front-runner, Rep. Martin Heinrich, that will set up quite a contrast. Heinrich supported Obamacare and even the public option. He has a 100 percent rating from the AFL-CIO and has supported virtually all of the president’s left-wing domestic items (e.g., the stimulus and cap-and-trade). On national security, he is backed by J Street, the left-wing group that is hyper-critical of Israel, and the crackpot left-wing group Council for a Livable World. That group, among other things, advocates unilateral deep cuts in our nuclear arsenal and direct engagement “without preconditions” with North Korea and Iran. As for Heinrich, he was one of a handful of members of Congress who did not support the resolution condemning the infamous Goldstone Report, the work of a U.N. fact-finding mission on the Gaza war of 2008-09 (he voted “present”).
The Senate race will be highly competitive. The Charlie Cook Report rates the race as a “toss up.” Critical in the race will be Hispanic voters. In 2008, 41 percent of the New Mexico electorate was Hispanic. Wilson said that she’s gotten at least 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in her past races. She thinks part of the key for Republicans to gaining the Hispanic vote is “to show up and listen.” It is critical to talk about a set of issues that is as important to them as they are to all voters — “safe neighborhoods, good schools and jobs,” she told me.
On the topic of immigration, she said, “I support legal immigration.” However, she added, “I don’t support amnesty because it is not fair to people standing in line at consulates around the world.” But for her, “Border security is a safety issue.” The danger and crime threat to her state from smugglers, narcotics traffickers and corruption make it essential to control who is coming into the country. She pointed out that her likely opponent wrote to the president requesting that he bypass Congress and designate an Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in Doña Ana County. If that huge area along the border were designated a monument, it would, Wilson argued, quickly become a point for illegal border entry by the drug cartels and a sanctuary from law enforcement, who wouldn’t be able to use motorized vehicles on the land.
Wilson thinks Mitt Romney can win her state. But both of them will be in tough races. If she can pull out a win, she’ll no doubt become a GOP rock star, not only for a big electoral win but for a policy gravitas that has been in short supply of late in the Senate.