Swing-Time in New Mexico

Swing-Time in New Mexico

In the ultimate swing district of the ultimate swing state, Patricia Madrid is trying to unseat New Mexico Representative “Leather” Heather Wilson. Is her Mountain State liberalism potent enough to win?



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.”

A former labor lawyer, Madrid was the first woman to win election to the district judicial bench. As attorney general she has built a pro-consumer, pro-environment record. She’s won a favorable reputation for taking on predatory lenders, she didn’t flinch from suing a dozen Indian gaming tribes for back taxes (even though the tribes are major Democratic donors) and she used her office to oppose energy deregulation. She has the support of popular and sometimes imperious New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, but she boasts about “standing up” to him when his office tried to purchase a plane with highway funds and when he tried to extend his control over the state university’s board of regents.

Edwards, as well as Wesley Clark, James Carville, Hillary Clinton and Barney Frank, is among the high-profile Democrats who have come out to stump and fundraise for Madrid. On the other side, not only did the President–accompanied by his top adviser, Karl Rove–show up to support her incumbent opponent but so, earlier, did Laura Bush. “My opponent’s biggest liability is her attachment to Bush and Cheney,” Madrid said as, outside the doors of her office, volunteers were signing up for precinct walking. “It’s her rubber-stamp voting on the important issues that makes this race a referendum on the President, and I’m perfectly comfortable with that.”

Wilson, a 45-year-old Air Force veteran, a New Hampshire native and an Oxford PhD in international relations, has been visibly more uneasy of late about her relationship with the White House. She votes as much with the White House as most Republican Representatives do–about 90 percent of the time. But she has recently taken pains to distance herself from Bush on some high-visibility issues. When the NSA domestic spying scandal broke earlier this year, Wilson, who sits on one of the agency’s Congressional oversight committees, landed in the front section of the New York Times when she expressed “serious concerns” about the surveillance program (though she later refused to vote for an amendment that would have crimped it). One of the top recipients of former Congressman Tom DeLay’s fundraising largesse, Wilson returned $10,000 from one of the PACs associated with him after he was accused of money laundering, and she opposed his return to a leadership post. She also broke with other Republicans in opposing a weakened Congressional ethics measure. In a touch of irony, Bush, during his brief fundraising stopover for her, highlighted her independence–the wrong person to be offering this sort of endorsement. “Heather Wilson is an independent soul,” Bush told his paying audience. “That’s what you want for a person from this district.”

Wilson, while endangered, should not be counted out. A hand-picked protégé of veteran Senator Pete Domenici, she has the solid support of the Republican Party machine. Known as “leather Heather” not only for her Air Force background but also for her political resolve, she’s recognized as a tenacious political fighter and an effective elected official. “Heather Wilson is very good at bringing home the bacon for this district,” says University of New Mexico political scientist Lonna Atkeson. “And even her critics recognize that her constituent services are excellent.” There’s also a significant military constituency in the district, home to both Kirtland Air Force Base and the Sandia National Labs, a top nuclear research site.

But Christine Trujillo, president of the state AFL-CIO, thinks that in Madrid, Wilson has finally met her match. “We’ve had some great candidates in the past, but people are right when they say New Mexicans are too damn nice,” she said. “Leather Heather has been able to frame her previous campaigns as that of a gentle lady running against men. But that’s baloney. This time her opponent is a Hispanic attorney general who has taken off the gloves and isn’t afraid to fight.”

Political scientist Atkeson also sees a distinguishing strength in Madrid’s campaign. None of Wilson’s previous challengers had the sort of broad, statewide name recognition Madrid has. So in a state full of crossover voters, and with Madrid having won two terms as attorney general, Atkeson said, “there are going to be a lot of Republican and independent voters in the district who already know and have already once voted for Madrid.”

Madrid has her own vulnerabilities. Her opponents criticize her for not acting quickly enough to pursue the still-unfolding corruption scandals of two other statewide Democratic pols, though she recently indicted one of them on a series of felony charges. Some of her supporters are privately concerned about what they say is a weak stump style, and others are concerned that in face-to-face debates with Wilson, Madrid will have to be better prepared on the details of her Congressional proposals. She also ruffled some sensibilities among LGBT activists when she shut down a move to issue gay marriage licenses in one county. And she has earned the enmity of the state’s once sizable but now greatly diminished Green Party constituency when she made it more difficult for smaller parties to have statewide ballot access.

A drive through the sprawling west side of Albuquerque, where instant cookie-cutter suburbs of affordable sand-colored single-family homes and condos are mushrooming among dusty, barren hills, serves as a fitting metaphor for what is the no-man’s land of American politics–the Undecided Center. It’s here, both politically and geographically, that this election is likely to be decided. Both candidates, both parties, scramble in figuring out how to appeal to the families taking up residence in places called Country Meadows, The Trails or Shadow Ridge, where the only cultural landmarks are a Walgreens or a Chili’s. The RNC, DNC, NRA, organized labor, the energy lobbies and the League of Conservation Voters, among many, many others, will be politically bombarding these neighborhoods in the weeks to come, trying to influence and capture them.

But if either Democrats or Republicans really knew the answer to what will move voters in the middle, elections probably wouldn’t be so close in New Mexico. Even as voters in this district were giving George W. Bush a narrow win in 2000 and John Kerry a narrow win in 2004, they were also re-electing Heather Wilson. Indeed, the odd contours of voter turnout, of crossover voting and the nearly 20 percent of registered voters who declare as independents make political forecasting in these parts a risky business.

Inside the Madrid campaign the phrase “the 13 percent” is used as shorthand to describe the much-vaunted undecided vote. The number derives from the first reliable poll of the campaign, earlier this year, which showed Wilson at 44 percent, Madrid at 43 percent and undecided at 13 percent. Madrid knows that the issue of how to capture this undecided middle is what bedevils the Democrats and also that strictly appealing to these voters often neuters and mutes the party.

“I think Democrats need to find their voice,” Madrid said as we concluded our conversation. “We need to speak up in a principled way and take positions. And I don’t think we’ve always spoken up enough. Sometimes we’re too worried about that 13 percent. But we need to speak to everyone the same way about the same issues and not be afraid of them. What is leadership if not that?”

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