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Democrats Emerging to Challenge Rep. Wilson

Just a few weeks ago, Democrats were scratching their heads wondering if they would be able to find a viable challenger to Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.).

Now, as Wilson’s troubles mount, the Democrats may find that they have more candidates than they know what to do with.

“Lots has obviously changed in the race in the last few weeks,” said Terry Brunner, state director to Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and one of the possible contenders.

While it is unclear whether the Democrats will be able to avoid a primary fight — and party leaders disagree about whether a hard-fought primary would damage their decade-long quest to oust Wilson — it is clear that Albuquerque City Councilor Martin Heinrich (D) is the furthest along when it comes to putting together a campaign apparatus and reaching out to potential supporters.

Heinrich, who formed an exploratory committee this week, will meet with party leaders in Washington, D.C., early next month amid indications that he is the favorite candidate of Gov. Bill Richardson (D) and his allies.

“The time is now to get in and start working this hard,” Heinrich said.

Heinrich has taken a leave of absence from his position as New Mexico’s Natural Resource Trustee, and Richardson — who appointed Heinrich to the post — publicly wished him well. What’s more, Amanda Cooper, deputy manager for Richardson’s presidential campaign and a veteran political operative in the Land of Enchantment, told the Albuquerque Journal that “the governor is pleased to see Martin in the race. He will make a strong candidate and a fine Congressman.”

Democrats are increasingly bullish on their chances now that Wilson has become ensnared in the scandal surrounding the firings of former U.S. attorneys. Wilson acknowledges calling David Iglesias, who was then New Mexico’s top federal prosecutor, just a few weeks before Election Day 2006 to inquire about the status of certain federal investigations. But she insists she did nothing wrong.

Wilson, who is accustomed to being a prime Democratic target, won re-election by less than 900 votes last year, and Heinrich argues that the Democratic nominee should do even better this time given President Bush’s depressed poll numbers and Wilson’s role in the Iglesias controversy.

“Things have kind of broken her way in the past,” Heinrich said. “This is a district that can and should be Democratic. The climate is different this time around. It’s the climate of 2006, but should be breaking worse for her.”

In Heinrich, Democrats believe they have a candidate whose profile isn’t all that different from Wilson’s. He’s a 35-year-old relative newcomer to Albuquerque who jumped into the political scene of his hometown almost immediately. Despite spending four years on the City Council, he will be touted as a fresh — and handsome — face with a record of accomplishment.

“It’s the first time the Democrats will have put up an articulate candidate against Wilson,” said Harry Pavlides, an Albuquerque-based Democratic strategist.

But Heinrich’s decision to jump into the fray has created a scramble among other would-be Democratic contenders, many of whom have accelerated the timetables for their due diligence. In addition to Brunner, former University of New Mexico President Louis Caldera, state Auditor Hector Balderas and former Albuquerque City Councilor Eric Griego are openly contemplating the race.

Caldera has a gold-plated résumé. He is a West Point and Harvard Law School graduate who served as secretary of the Army under President Bill Clinton and also was a state legislator in California. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee operatives have been touting him for weeks, and he met in Washington, D.C., last week with DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.).

But Caldera resigned from the university presidency in January 2006 after feuding with the Board of Regents, which is led by a close political associate of Richardson’s and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish (D). Some New Mexico insiders have speculated that Richardson’s preference for Heinrich in the Congressional race could be payback to Caldera.

Caldera, who is due to return to UNM this summer to join the law school faculty, said in an interview that he’s “still a long way from making a decision” on a House bid. “But I am concerned that the country is heading in the wrong direction,” he said.

Both Heinrich and Caldera could be criticized because they aren’t lifelong 1st district residents. But the same is also true of Balderas, the 33-year-old state auditor who has been the target of misguided whispers that he is a carpetbagger.

Just elected to his statewide post in 2006, Balderas grew up in Wagon Mound, which is in Northern New Mexico’s 3rd district. But he spent most of his professional life as a prosecutor in Albuquerque and lived there for several years.

In 2004, he moved back to his hometown and won a seat in the state House of Representatives. Two months before Election Day 2006, he was tapped by state Democratic leaders to be the auditor nominee, after the previous nominee relinquished the nomination in scandal. Now, Balderas said, he has moved his official residence back to Albuquerque.

Balderas said he will spend the next several weeks trying to determine what 1st district residents want in a Member of Congress and whether he fits the bill. But he said he believes that he may have the right profile for the job.

“I’m really concerned that the Democratic Party get behind the candidate with the right profile, that can run against Heather on issues like government accountability,” he said.

Balderas has hired Caroline Buerkle, a longtime top adviser to former state Attorney General Patricia Madrid, the ill-fated Democratic nominee against Wilson last year, as a consultant.

Griego, the former city councilor who lost a bid for mayor of Albuquerque in 2005 and is now a deputy secretary in the state Department of Economic Development, said he is also trying to gauge what kind of Democrat would run strongest against Wilson.

“Until and unless I see someone who’s pretty formidable — not just in their résumé, but in their district — I’m going to very seriously look at it,” Griego said.

Griego, who managed former prosecutor John Kelly’s unsuccessful campaign against Wilson in 2000, took a mild swipe at his potential primary opponents.

“Unlike a lot of people in the race, I’m a hometown boy,” he said. “And I’ve watched this race for a lot of cycles.”

Griego — who is also contemplating a run for state Senate — said he’d like to see some poll numbers before deciding whether to enter the Congressional election. Similarly, Brunner, the Bingaman aide, said he might not decide on the House race until September.

The dynamic of a Democratic Congressional primary could depend on who enters. If Heinrich and Griego run, they could split the liberal vote, paving the way for a more moderate nominee. Race and ethnicity also will be a factor in a district where at least half of the Democratic primary voters are Hispanic.

“Hispanics win primaries, Anglos win the generals,” Pavlides said.

But the simple fact is, in a district that leans Democratic in presidential elections, Wilson has confounded Democrats by beating both Hispanics and Anglos, so there is no proven formula for defeating her.

“I think we’ll know a lot in a month,” Heinrich said. “This is moving very quickly — far more quickly than it ever has.”

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