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.”