Swing-Time in New Mexico
When George W. Bush buzzed through here for a few hours in mid-June on a fundraising stop for local Republican Congresswoman Heather Wilson, he drew the usual sort of noisy protest. Braving a fearsome weekday summer sun, a couple of hundred demonstrators showed up in front of the Hyatt Hotel, where Bush was being feted by supporters who had paid $1,000 a seat and contributed $375,000 to Wilson's campaign. Although the protest organizers had filled the streets outside with mournful black balloons, ask just about any demonstrator and he or she would readily admit how happy the group was that Bush had come to visit.
"Oh, God, yeah, it's great for us," is how Carter Bundy, regional political director of the public employees union and one of the protest rally organizers, put it. Indeed, here in the ultimate swing Congressional district, in the ultimate swing state--a state that Gore won by 366 votes and Kerry lost by only a few thousand--Democrats think the best thing they've got going for them this year is the albatross of George W. Bush hung around the necks of their local opponents. They're certainly counting on incumbent Wilson's coziness with an unpopular White House to be her undoing come November.
Though party registration in the New Mexico 1st Congressional District breaks 46 to 35 in favor of Democrats and more than 40 percent of the heavily urbanized district is Latino, Republicans have held the seat since its creation in 1982. Political analysts have been continually stumped by the high number of crossover voters. One theory is that a significant sector of Latino males in the district are active-duty military or vets and vote with conservatives. A more demonstrative factor is that the two local daily papers have tilted egregiously toward the GOP. But whatever the sources of the GOP's past strength, the Republican hold on the seat has been weakening. Democrats have relentlessly targeted it since 1998, when Wilson was first elected. She squeaked by with a 6 percentage-point margin that year, when a Green candidate took 10 percent of the vote, and she has held it ever since.
For this November's race, however, Wilson has drawn her most formidable opponent to date: New Mexico's two-term attorney general, Patricia Madrid. And local Democrats believe this could be the breakthrough year when they capture Wilson's seat, one of the fifteen they need to take back the House. Strategists in both parties have ranked the Madrid-Wilson battle as one of the top ten Congressional races this fall and, with national money coming in from both sides, perhaps one of the most expensive. "It's a perfect storm for us," says union official Bundy, convinced the Democrats have finally got the right candidate, at the right time, to essentially turn the contest into a referendum on the President. "We've got an excellent organization today and one that is ready to roll," says Democratic county chair Marvin Moss, who with his wispy hair looks like Trotsky in cowboy boots and a bolo tie. "And if you ask what's got them moving, I need say only one word--Bush."
"I want your bodies, I want your hearts, I want your minds," said the diminutive 59-year-old Madrid as she revved up an enchilada-laden luncheon of about 100 volunteers in her modest Albuquerque campaign headquarters--a few rooms in a medical building just off a freeway off-ramp. This was to be the first weekend of intensive canvassing, an unusually early start for a Congressional campaign, and Madrid was making the most of it. "This is really the first day of the fight to take back America," she said, to her supporters' applause. She got a similarly warm response when she slammed the Administration's policies on Medicare, tax cuts and energy--all major themes of her campaign. But the applause thundered when she worked her way to the issue of the war, which she denounced as "horrible and misguided."
"I think the war is the key issue across the country and the war is the key issue in my campaign," Madrid told The Nation in a later, extended interview. "It doesn't fit well with people how we got there on multiple misrepresentations. I'm not a candidate that thinks I should be a muted Democratic voice. I think we should take positions. I think we should talk about the war. I think it is a strength, not a weakness. I'm on the ground, and I know people are genuinely concerned; that this is what's on everybody's mind and we have to have answers."
And while Madrid says she's an admirer of troop withdrawal proposals of the sort championed by Pennsylvania Representative John Murtha, and while she says that "it was a mistake to go to war in the first place," it would be too simplistic to merely say she is running as an antiwar candidate. Madrid is, instead, quite representative of a new strain of Mountain State liberalism that positions itself ideologically between the party's coastal progressives and its more conservative and moderate voices in the heartland (Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer might be the highest-profile face of this Democratic current). Madrid, for example, has not signed on to a resolution passed by the New Mexico Democratic Party calling for George W. Bush's impeachment. She's liberal enough to resonate with the party base, but she is careful to avoid unnecessary polarization of more centrist voters. She goes out of her way to stress that a new, Democrat-dominated House would be obligated to conduct a certain amount of investigation of Bush's war and civil liberties policies but adds that her political energy would be mostly dedicated to working on legislation in the areas she regards as most important: Medicare, healthcare and the environment.
No accident, probably, that she chaired John Edwards's statewide campaign in 2004 and that her son is currently working as one of his staffers. She's using her record as attorney general to shape the same sort of populist, bread-and-butter message that distinguished Edwards's 2004 primary run, one that also defied traditional ideological classification. "When John Edwards speaks it reminds me of when I was in college and heard speakers that inspired me," Madrid said. "And that's what we're supposed to be. And at my age, he inspires me."