New Mexico Primary Turning Rough

Posted April 29, 2008 at 6:24pm

With the New Mexico Republican Senate primary nearly a month away and absentee voting set to begin Tuesday, Reps. Steve Pearce and Heather Wilson have accelerated the pace of their campaigns — hitting each other on the airwaves in a battle that is growing increasingly negative in tone.

While each candidate claimed victory in a televised debate on Friday, Wilson launched her first television ad of the contest — a broadside against Pearce that assailed his House voting record on key New Mexico issues. Pearce has been equally rough and was scheduled to drop his third television spot Tuesday on the heels of an ad that essentially accused Wilson of voting like a liberal on several matters, including health care and immigration.

“They both seem to be running pretty strong campaigns,” said one Republican operative based in the Land of Enchantment.

The winner of the June 3 Republican primary will face Rep. Tom Udall (D) in November. Udall, who represents the northern New Mexico 3rd district, has a clear path to his party’s nomination, and is seen as the early favorite to replace Sen. Pete Domenici (R), who is retiring after six terms.

Though Republicans following the GOP primary continue to rate it a tossup, Wilson appears to have won the battle for campaign cash and for support on Capitol Hill.

The Congresswoman, who represents the Albuquerque-area 1st district, closed the first quarter of the year with $1.2 million in cash on hand, compared with $854,000 for Pearce, who represents the southern New Mexico 2nd district.

Wilson has received considerable support on Capitol Hill: She was endorsed by Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) on Monday and has received $95,000 in donations — mostly from about 25 leadership political action committees. Among the contributions were $5,000 each from PACs run by GOP Sens. Kit Bond (Mo.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), $5,000 from House Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) PAC, and $3,500 from National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole’s (Okla.) PAC.

Pearce has received just one donation from a Member, according to available records. That contribution, for $1,000, came from Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), although he also donated $1,000 to Wilson. However, Pearce has been the recipient of at least $120,000 from Club for Growth members, and the group intends to step up its activity in this race in the coming weeks, although it declined to specify its plans on Tuesday.

Pearce has also been heartily supported by the energy industry, a key player in New Mexico’s economy. Energy industry PACs accounted for nearly all of the $66,000 in PAC donations to the Pearce campaign.

Months ago, Pearce launched his campaign by attempting to position himself as the only conservative in the race. He has continued to draw stark contrasts between himself and his opponent, accusing Wilson of supporting big-government programs and voting the wrong way on hot-button social issues.

With this strategy, he hopes to succeed beyond his solidly conservative 2nd district.

In both Udall’s overwhelmingly Democratic 3rd district and Wilson’s competitive, slightly Democratic 1st district, Pearce expects to score with Republicans who rarely have a chance to vote for a strong Republican with a chance of winning a race.

Pearce has set up a get-out-the-vote organization called Pearce Partners in every county in the state and has complemented his television ad campaign with three separate direct-mail hits.

“In Albuquerque and the northern district, the Republicans up there have never had a chance to vote for a real Republican in the House,” Pearce campaign spokesman Brian Phillips said. “They have someone who genuinely represents their ideas now. We’re hearing they appreciate that they have a choice in this race.”

Wilson’s strategy is more localized. She has moved to poison Pearce by pointing out very specific votes he’s cast in the House and painting them as highly detrimental to New Mexico’s economy, which relies heavily on the energy and national defense industries.

Just as Wilson disputes Pearce’s charge that she is not a conservative, Pearce rejects Wilson’s accusation that his vote for a bill to realign military bases — and against bills to fund the departments of Energy and Homeland Security — were bad for the state.

Since some early internal Republican polling showed Wilson behind Pearce, and with the Congressman’s victory at the state GOP’s mid-March pre-primary nominating convention, it has been assumed that Wilson is trailing in this race and needs to close strong to pull it out. On Tuesday, the Wilson campaign didn’t dispute this line of thinking.

But closing strong has been Wilson’s forte in three competitive House races that were heavily targeted by the Democrats, including last cycle when the Congresswoman survived despite a wave election that brought Democrats back to power on Capitol Hill for the first time in a dozen years.

Wilson’s campaign is managed by Christopher Collins, who ran the GOP’s statewide field program in 2002. All of Wilson’s campaigns have had a reputation for successful get-out-the-vote efforts. That could be key in an election where up to 50 percent of the votes could be cast in early voting, which begins May 17, or by mail.

“Everybody always knew this was going to be a tough race. It will be a close race, and it will come down to the wire in June,” Wilson campaign spokeswoman Whitney Cheshire said. “The advertising in this campaign is really just beginning. As Republican primary voters become familiar with Steve Pearce’s voting record, they’re realizing he’s not the match for them.”