15 Days to Election Day: New Mexico

There is some interest in New Mexico this year if not at the presidential level, then certainly in the Senate race. Of all the southwestern states, New Mexico is perhaps the most blue. However, recent events, mainly the election of highly popular and visible Republican Governor Susanna Martinez, should give Republicans hope. This state will likely award its 5 electoral votes to Obama although nowhere near the almost 57% of the vote he received in 2008. Instead, look for that vote to come in near the 52% range.

Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat, is retiring from the Senate leaving this an open seat and target of opportunity for Republicans. On the Democratic side, First District representative Martin Heinrich will be the candidate. He won a contentious primary against New Mexico state auditor Hector Balderas. Heinrich is considered a centrist Democrat and well he must be to represent the First, generally moderate District. This area is the smallest of the state’s three congressional districts and is centered in Albuquerque.

His opponent will be former First District representative Heather Wilson who crushed the more conservative opponent Greg Sowards for the GOP nod. Her most possible formidable opponent was originally Lt. Governor John Sanchez who withdrew his name from consideration and later endorsed Wilson. In order to win the Senate seat, a GOP candidate needs to be “moderate” as strict conservatism will not win in New Mexico on a statewide basis. Hence, Wilson would be the best choice to stage an upset in this race. Thus far, Heinrich leads in most polls. Turnout will be very important in this race. If it is relatively low, then Wilson stands a greater chance of winning. There are many indications that turnout will be rather average. That, plus Wilson’s moderate credentials, give her an even better chance of winning.

In 2008, Wilson ran unsuccessfully for her party’s nomination for Senate against the staunch conservative Steve Pearce. Although he won the contentious primary, he was defeated in the general election by current Senator Tom Udall. In that 2008 race, Wilson was attacked by an anti-tax group that spent over $600,000 portraying Wilson as a tax-and-spend Republican. In the 2012 Senate race, there has been a coalescing around Wilson’s candidacy within the GOP. Her campaign has been to characterize Heinrich as a tax-and-spend liberal way outside the mainstream. Since registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 1.5 to 1 in New Mexico, Wilson needs to pull the votes of independents and some moderate Democrats to prevail. Ironically, in order to do that, she could use those previous attacks on her to her advantage to illustrate her independence from GOP orthodoxy and votes on issues based on merits, not rhetoric. It should also be mentioned that Wilson did not try to “out-conservative” her opponent in the primary and still crushed him.

Current polling puts Heinrich up by an average of six points. Of 13 polls thus far, Wilson has not led in any of them. They have had debates and the polls have moved little. However, a large percentage of the population remains undecided, even in the most recent poll, and it is this block of voters that Wilson must win over. She was within striking distance, but cannot look for help at the top of the ticket. Instead, she needs to win in the Albuquerque-based First District she used to represent and the one Heinrich now represents. Fundraising is basically even with a slight edge to Wilson. Even the breakdown of sources of funds is equal so that metric cannot be used. The fact that a third party candidate- Jon Barrie of the Independent American Party- will likely steal about 6 percentage points from Heinrich, not Wilson, should give the GOP some hope. Throw in some disaffected Democrats and lower turnout than 2008, and you have the makings of a Wilson upset.

For a border state, immigration reform has played little role in the debate between the opponents. The race between Heinrich and Wilson is focused on jobs, the economy and energy. Perhaps that is because as far as the number of illegal immigrants, the state ranks 27th. Instead, the debate in this area is more a state-based issue- whether drivers licenses should be issued to illegals. Wilson has been portraying Heinrich as beholden to the Obama agenda. Whether that is a good strategy remains to be seen since Obama’s approval ratings in New Mexico are higher than the national average.

In the end, I believe there will be a late surge by Wilson that will fall just a little short. Since they began debating one another, it is Heinrich who has seen the most positive movement in the polls. My gut says Wilson will pull off an upset, but my brain says otherwise.

In the House races, Pearce will win the 2nd District, located in the southern half of the state, while Democrat Ben Lujan will win the northern Third District. That leaves only the 1st being vacated Heinrich. That match up will feature Democrat Michelle Grisham versus Republican Janice Arnold Jones. Both feature some expertise in specific areas based on their private sector experience and these areas are of interest to New Mexico voters. Arnold-Jones stresses her experience in the energy industry as being the means to add jobs and revenue to the New Mexico economy by exploitation of resources. Grisham, on the other hand, stresses her experience in the health care field as a means towards reform. Jones had no competition in the GOP primary and was an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nod in the gubernatorial race. Grisham, the Bernalillo county commissioner, had a testy primary and had to overcome two good opponents- Marty Chavez, the former mayor of Albuquerque and state senator Eric Griego. One would have to give this race to Grisham at this point keeping the New Mexico delegation 2-1 in favor of the Democrats.

Although they have several questions on their ballot, most of them involve a redefinition and qualifications for job duties in constitutionally-mandated positions. There also three bond issues. Currently, the state ranks about in the middle as far as existing state debt is concerned. The bond issues are: senior citizen home upgrades ($10.4 million), library acquisition ($9.8 million) and higher education and special school funding ($120 million) for a total of $140.2 million in additional state debt.

In conclusion: Obama takes five electoral votes while Martin Heinrich will win a closer than predicted race to keep this Senate seat in the hands of the Democrats. Two of three members of the House delegation will be Democrats.

Running totals thus far: Obama leads in the electoral count 206-159 while Democrats now lead in the Senate, 37-35. Republicans retain the majority in the House 149-142.

Next: Arizona