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Heather Wilson Running to the Right in N.M.

Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) sounds like a tea partyer.

The former Congresswoman, who ran on her national security expertise and independent voting record to win five full terms representing Albuquerque, is now boasting that she has signed a conservative “cut, cap and balance” pledge, says she wouldn’t increase the debt ceiling unless a deal includes significant budget cuts and calls the new health care law unconstitutional.

As she faces a competitive primary against Lt. Gov. John Sanchez and at least two others vying for the Republican nomination to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D), Wilson is tacking to the right every chance she gets.

“Primaries are a family fight,” Wilson told Roll Call during a recent interview in Washington, D.C. “I’m a pro-free enterprise, pro-Second Amendment, pro-life Republican.”

She’s wooing the same brand of groups that spent $600,000 during the 2008 Senate primary on ads that painted her as favoring tax increases. She lost the nomination to Rep. Steve Pearce, a conservative who fell to Democrat Tom Udall in the general election.

Wilson is looking to claim the conservative mantle, and sparks are already flying between the two leading candidates, with each questioning the other’s record. She is engaging with tea party activists and building a coalition of support as she faces the same questions about her conservative credentials — and one more about her vote in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Wilson has the blessing of 26 state legislators, former Republican Reps. Manuel Lujan and Bill Redmond, and former Sen. Pete Domenici (R), who also endorsed her over Pearce in the closing days of the 2008 primary.

Her campaign’s YouTube channel features a video titled, “Conservatives Support Heather Wilson,” and last week she signed the “cut, cap and balance” pledge sponsored by a coalition of conservative groups including Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Express.

A GOP primary poll released last week by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found Wilson with a 2-to-1 lead over Sanchez, including a 17-point lead among those self-identifying as “very conservative.” That’s partly due to Wilson’s name identification advantage, but she also remains quite popular, with a 66 percent favorable rating overall.

Wilson said Sanchez “is not who he says he is” and that he and Gov. Susana Martinez (R) rarely speak. Wilson has known Martinez for years and served as chairwoman of the governor’s transition  team through December.

Martinez won’t endorse in the primary, but she quickly made clear she’s not on board with Sanchez by limiting his duties as lieutenant governor when he announced his bid.

In early June, the Wilson campaign highlighted a vote Sanchez took during his one term in the state House to reinstate collective bargaining rights for state workers. But Sanchez supporters say he led the right-to-work movement in the state, erasing any past questions about his stance on labor.

“If she’s going to hit Sanchez on anything, she needs to have a good record of her own. And she simply doesn’t,” Sanchez adviser Corbin Casteel told Roll Call.

The Club for Growth is looking at the race, but there is little chance it will endorse Wilson after investing more than half a million dollars against her three years ago.

Wilson and Sanchez both met recently with Max Pappas, FreedomWorks’ vice president of public policy who is in charge of vetting candidates for its new super political action committee. The grass-roots group plans to have a say in more than a dozen Senate races next year, but it is not ready to endorse anyone in New Mexico just yet.

“We’re in the process of talking to our membership in the state. We’ve got thousands of members in New Mexico,” said Pappas, who had nothing but good things to say about Sanchez.

On TARP, Wilson said the situation laid out for Members in September 2008 briefings was dire — they were told the entire banking system was at risk if Congress took no immediate action.

“It was a terrible situation to be in,” Wilson said. “I did what I thought was best for the country at the time.”

That vote has caused problems for Republicans around the country, including in neighboring Utah, where former Sen. Bob Bennett was ousted by fellow Republicans last year and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) is working hard to avoid the same fate.

As many conservatives in Congress are saying now, Wilson told Roll Call that she thinks it would be more irresponsible to increase the debt ceiling without coinciding spending cuts than to let the deadline to raise it pass. When serving in Congress in the majority, she voted to increase the limit at least once.

Wilson spent nearly $5 million on her 2006 re-election campaign in the moderate, Albuquerque-based 1st district, which she won that year by fewer than 1,000 votes. The former Congresswoman estimates she will have to raise $8 million to $10 million to win the Senate seat. She got off to a good start, raising more than $300,000 in the first three weeks of her campaign.

Democrats also face a tough primary bout between Rep. Martin Heinrich and state Auditor Hector Balderas. Heinrich enjoys the same name identification advantage as Wilson but could be in for just as difficult an intraparty challenge.

At the presidential level, Wilson said New Mexico “starts out in play,” despite President Barack Obama’s 15-point victory there in 2008.

The New Mexico Senate race could have looked drastically different had Bingaman waited a day, even a few more hours, to announce his retirement.

Wilson, who began taking a hard look at the race in early January, was at an event at Sandia National Laboratories on Feb. 18 when the news broke of Bingaman’s retirement.

Three hours later, Sandia offered Wilson the position of vice president for defense and intelligence. Wilson took the weekend to decide, but the open-seat opportunity was too tempting for her to turn down.

She said timing is everything: “Had they offered the job four hours earlier, I would’ve taken it.”

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