Sen. Pete Domenici (R) said in an interview late last week that he is not taking sides in the Republican primary to replace him, and he added that he is worried about the effect the June 3 intraparty contest will have on the GOP’s chances of holding the seat in the general election.
Domenici said he would not involve himself in the GOP Senate primary between 1st district Rep. Heather Wilson and 2nd district Rep. Steve Pearce. Domenici’s neutrality is notable, as he has long been Wilson’s political patron, going back to her first House race in a 1998 special election.
Domenici expects both Wilson and Pearce to be well-funded in the primary. But he is concerned that the contest will eat up the financial resources the GOP is going to need to hold his seat against what is likely to be stiff competition in the general election.
“The tougher question for Republicans is, what effect does all of that have on the ability to raise a lot of money for the general. That’s a very tough one for them, and for those of us who are trying to be their helpers,” Domenici said. “The fact that they’re going to spend so much money [on the primary], that doesn’t make the next step very easy.”
“It’s going to be harder,” Domenici continued, “because they’re going to have lots of resources tied up because they’re fighting each other. I hope that doesn’t hurt them in the general.”
A concern for Republicans in a swing state like New Mexico is that Democrats could capture Domenici’s seat on the strength of national discontent with the GOP and access to campaign cash that could favor the Democrats.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee banked $22.9 million to close September, compared with just $8.3 million on hand for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Although the Democrats also are facing a primary situation, the DSCC’s cash advantage over the NRSC — if it were to continue at this pace heading into fall 2008 — could allow the Democrats to more easily weather the depletion of resources caused by the primary.
The Democratic field is still fluid.
Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez is running, as is wealthy developer Don Wiviott, who has pledged to spend $2 million of his own money to win the primary. Meanwhile, DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) is aggressively trying to convince Lt. Gov. Diane Denish to run.
Schumer has a record of intervening in primaries to clear the field for his preferred candidate, as he did last year in Pennsylvania for now-Sen. Bob Casey (D). The DSCC declined to comment on Schumer’s role in the New Mexico primary — but committee spokesman Matthew Miller made clear that winning the Domenici seat is at the top of his boss’s list.
“This will be one of the most important races in the country,” Miller said. “And with New Mexico Democrats’ strong electoral history, we feel very good about our chances to pick up this seat.”
The Republicans also are promising to vigorously contest for the seat, and NRSC spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher on Monday expressed confidence that the GOP would hold Domenici’s seat regardless of who emerges from the party’s primary.
Although Schumer is heavily courting Denish, she has indicated she would prefer running for governor in 2010 over seeking the Senate in 2008. If she stays out of the race and Chavez were to end up as the Democratic nominee, Domenici said he would be formidable competition for the Republicans.
“Marty Chavez is a very known commodity. He’ll be a good advocate — a strong candidate,” Domenici said.
— David M. Drucker