A decade ago New Mexico Lt. Gov. John Sanchez (R) was the fastest rising star in the Land of Enchantment.
As a successful owner of a roofing company and one-time airline steward (!), the businessman upset a 30-year incumbent Democratic speaker of the state House in 2000. It was “the biggest upset, some would say, in the state’s history,” Sanchez noted proudly in a recent interview with The Fix as part our “Rising” series highlighting political up and comers.
Two years later, Sanchez set his eyes on a bigger prize: the governor’s mansion. Unfortunately for him, he ran into a juggernaut by the name of Bill Richardson. The former Clinton administration official soon drowned Sanchez with money and dispatched him with ease, 55 percent to 39 percent.
After taking some time away from politics, Sanchez, still only 48 years old, re-entered political life in November with a big win in the state’s lieutenant governor primary, after which he was joined with now-Gov. Susana Martinez on the party’s successful general election ticket.
Just months later, with Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) announcing his retirement from the Senate, Sanchez is again going for a promotion.
Sanchez said Thursday that he is “very close” to entering the race.“I’ll make a final decision very soon,” he added.
A Sanchez for Senate campaign would put him in a primary with former Rep. Heather Wilson and businessman Greg Sowards; Wilson ran unsuccessfully for the Republican Senate nomination in 2008.
The matchup between Sanchez and Wilson looks like a jump ball for now, and influential Republicans in the state – always wanting to be a part of the winning team – are taking a wait-and-see approach to the primary, according to Republicans on the ground. “A lot of the donors and a lot of people are standing on the sidelines,” acknowledged one Republican operative.
Wilson’s vulnerabilities with the Republican base are well-known. Sanchez, because he has held office only briefly, doesn’t have as long a record.
That’s not to say he is without flaws. During his 2002 governor campaign and his 2010 lieutenant governor campaign, his opponents hit him for employing 10 illegal immigrants at his roofing company. Sanchez is quick to point out the Immigration and Customs Enforcement has also given him special recognition for his work to combat the employment of illegal immigrants.
But mostly, Republicans see Sanchez as having the potential to be more of a consensus candidate than Wilson, inspiring conservative voters, bringing Hispanic voters into the GOP fold and even wooing some independents.
New Mexico political analyst Heath Haussamen said there is indeed an opening for Sanchez. “There are Republicans in New Mexico who don’t believe Wilson is conservative enough to be their party’s nominee for U.S. Senate, and they’re actively seeking an alternative,” Haussamen said.
Haussamen added that Sanchez, who can self-fund to a limited extent, needs to prove that he can raise the amount of money for a tough open Senate race. He also said some Republicans are wary of nominating someone who is too conservative after the shellacking Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) took in an open-seat race in 2008. (Pearce narrowly edged Wilson in that race.)
But Haussamen said the race still revolves around Wilson, who has been securing support from some of those who backed Pearce three years ago.
“If this comes down to being a race between two credible candidates, the anti-Wilson candidate has a shot,” he said. “If not, Wilson has a huge advantage.”
For his part, Sanchez says Wilson’s 2008 loss shows how tough a spot she’s in with Republican primary voters.
After the primary loss, one of Wilson’s final acts as a congresswoman was to vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout in October 2008. That vote looms as a potentially big vulnerability, Sanchez said.
“Her overall record is one that most New Mexicans believe she is not conservative,” Sanchez said. “Her previous run in 2008 educated voters about where she stands.”
That may well be true, but it’s going to be Sanchez’s job to provide a viable alternative, and not everyone is convinced he’s ready to do that. Despite Martinez’s win, New Mexico remains a Democratic-leaning state, and the 50-year-old Wilson has long been seen as the party’s real rising star — and the only Republican who can win over enough independents and Democrats to win next November.
The question for Sanchez is whether he has learned his lessons from his last major race a decade ago. If so, he might be able to make his star shine again in 2012.