New Mexico’s term limits on statewide officeholders may prove to be a boon for Democrats as they search for a top-tier challenger to Rep. Heather Wilson (R) in 2006.
Both Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron (D) and state Attorney General Patricia Madrid (D) reach the end of their second terms in 2006 and cannot run for re-election. As a result — and with Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s (D) recent declaration that he will seek a fifth term next year — both have turned their eyes to the Albuquerque-based 1st district seat that Wilson has held since 1998.
“They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Joe Monahan, a political and business consultant who operates a Web log on New Mexico politics. “Vigil-Giron and Madrid both have high name ID, but what do they do? … They have somehow got to keep high-profile political careers going, which could force them to run against an incumbent.”
The incumbent in question is Wilson, who was re-elected to a fourth term last November by 10 points in a rematch with then-state Senate President Pro Tem Richard Romero (D).
Wilson’s success has confounded Democrats in the 1st district, which is considered a swing district in presidential elections. But Monahan reminds people that the district has been in Republican hands since 1968.
“It’s not been a swing district; it’s been a Republican district,” he said.
Despite that fact, New Mexico Democrats are not discouraged. Vanessa Alarid, the executive director of the New Mexico Democratic Party, said the party is already planning for 2006, when most statewide offices are up for grabs.
“Once the  election stopped we didn’t stop our campaign,” she said. “We are moving forward. There have been some people who have talked about their interest in running” for Congress.
Included prominently in that list are Vigil-Giron and Madrid. Neither would say that she is running for the seat, but both profess to be keeping their options open.
Madrid’s special project director, Caroline Buerkle, said the attorney general has not made a decision yet.
“She is committed to serving out her term and committed to her job,” Buerkle said, though she did note that “Madrid is seriously reviewing a race in [the district] and should make a decision in the next several months.”
Vigil-Giron said that while she is “not sure who is floating that rumor” that she may be a candidate, she has not ruled out a run.
“It’s just one of those things where there’s a possibility I could continue my public service, so I can’t give you a maybe or anything like that,” she said.
Greg Graves, executive director of the Republican Party of New Mexico, says a Vigil-Giron candidacy could be compromised by problems with elections in the state during her time in office.
“She put about $2 million in advertising saying ‘My name is Rebecca Vigil-Giron, go vote,’ ‘Rebecca Vigil-Giron says to go vote,’ etc. She basically used federal tax dollars to go promote herself,” Graves said.
This by itself might not be a problem, Graves said, save for the fact that “we had such a rotten election year [in 2004]; it took forever to get votes counted. She could have put that money into training county clerks instead of spending federal money to get her name out there.”
Vigil-Giron vigorously denies that New Mexico had more trouble than any other state.
“We just had a lot more provisional ballots,” she said. “Because of the provision in the Help America Vote Act that gave everyone an opportunity to cast a provisional ballot if they didn’t appear on the rolls” it took more time to count all the ballots.
“There were many things that occurred nationally as well as in New Mexico” that contributed to delays in vote certification, she said.
Madrid, a former judge and one-time nominee for lieutenant governor, has also not escaped controversy in her long career, and for a time last year appeared to be on the outs with the state’s powerful governor, Bill Richardson (D). But Madrid and Richardson seem to have smoothed out some of their difficulties, and Madrid may also be able to call on former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) for support. Madrid was an early and visible supporter of Edwards’ presidential campaign last year.
“She has the obvious appeal of being a Hispanic woman who is known statewide and has a national profile,” said Matt Farrauto, communications director for the New Mexico Democratic Party.
Some Democrats have long argued that if they ran a woman against Wilson, they would have a better chance of picking off moderate women and independents who otherwise gravitate to the Congresswoman. Wilson has only had male challengers.
In addition to the two veteran politicians, a name that has recently popped up as a possible Democratic candidate is that of Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a freshman state Senator. Ortiz y Pino said “the issue of running for Congress is not even on my radar screen right now.”
Brian Sanderoff, an independent pollster based in Albuquerque, said it is unlikely Ortiz y Pino would run.
“Personally, I don’t think Jerry’s running; he’s just been getting some publicity on some first-year legislative stuff. He’s a great guy, and articulate, but I doubt he’ll run for Congress,” Sanderoff said.
In order to take the district, Democrats will need to find a way to hurt Wilson politically, something they have not been able to accomplish yet. Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says that President Bush’s push to privatize Social Security could hurt the Congresswoman.
“We feel very good about prospects in the district, particularly given the fact that Rep. Wilson has so mishandled the Social Security issues,” Feinberg said. “We’re certainly seeing that the country is shifting, saying that Social Security is not in crisis.”
For her part, Wilson is trying to stay above the fray for now.
“Rep. Wilson is not interested in partisan maneuvering on retirement security,” said Joel Hannahs, the Congresswoman’s press secretary. “The issue is too important to New Mexico’s seniors.”
Monahan reads the situation differently, however.
“She still has wiggle room [and] will be difficult to beat because she hasn’t taken a stand for the president’s plan or directly against,” he said. “She’s hoping, I think, that the issue will peter out, simply go away.”