Could Tom Udall lose the race for the U.S. Senate seat opened by Pete Domenici’s retirement? Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce not only think so, they’re convinced they can beat him.
I recently spoke with them for an hour each on Joy AM 1550. Their confidence in their ability to defeat Udall filled the studio. Their conviction explains why they are fighting one another so hard to be the GOP nominee.
How can they be so confident? Every early poll shows Udall beating both of them. This is supposed to be a Democratic year. New Mexico is a Democratic state.
First, whether you agree with them or not, Wilson and Pearce are impressive human beings. Both have come a long way from humble beginnings. Pearce tells the story of how his unemployed father bundled the family into a truck and left Texas hoping for work in New Mexico. The truck broke down at the state line and Pearce’s family walked their way into the Land of Enchantment. Pearce and his wife borrowed the money to buy a small oil services company, which they built into a large, profitable enterprise. Pearce still found the time and energy to earn an MBA. He tells his life story looking straight at you with a strong gaze and speaking in perfect sentences and paragraphs. Contrary to the caricature Democrats want to believe, this is no yahoo from the oil patch.
Wilson grew up in a small New Hampshire town. Her father died when she was 7 years old. Wilson’s mother later married another man, a cop “who lost his job because he was an alcoholic.” That’s all she shares of her childhood. She went on to become a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. You could address her as “Dr. Wilson” because she holds a Ph.D. in international relations. She graduated from the Air Force Academy in only the third class with women cadets. We frequently forget that Wilson has spent 10 years in Congress while raising a family of three children. (Disclosure: I contributed $100 to Wilson’s first race and we attend the same church.)
There is a large quantity of hard steel inside these two people. Yet they can seem modest and unassuming. Pearce showed up for a 6:30 a.m. recording session alone, with a country smile and the morning’s snow in his hair. Wilson, despite her towering résumé, resists invitations to talk much about her accomplishments.
Tom Udall is also impressive. I have praised him in this column. But Democrats need to be realistic about these two Republicans. They are unlike any opponents Udall has faced before.
Pearce and Wilson attack Udall’s voting record as too liberal for a state more conservative than his strongholds of Santa Fe and Taos. They will also target two of Udall’s own constituencies: people who depend on Los Alamos Labs and Hispanics.
Wilson is aggressively attacking Udall’s votes to cut funding for Los Alamos Labs. Udall wants to transition the labs to missions beyond weapons research. Wilson calls for adding funding, not cutting it. She says that although Udall sits on the House Appropriations Committee, he’s fallen far short of Domenici’s example of bringing federal dollars to New Mexico.
Pearce believes he can peel off Hispanics by hammering abortion and other social issues. Pearce says his pro-life stance has won over Hispanic communities in his sprawling southern district. He believes he can do the same against Udall. Wilson is also pro-life. An anti-abortion focus on Hispanics would parallel Bush’s 2004 campaign. Bush didn’t win heavily Hispanic counties, but Kerry carried them by smaller margins than needed to offset big losses elsewhere.
New Mexicans are comfortable with having a Republican senator. After 30 years, we’re used to it. Wilson and Pearce have repeatedly won in predominantly Democratic districts. Udall cannot rely on partisan loyalty any more than the Democrats Domenici has defeated over his long career.
Nor is money going to be a Udall advantage. So far he has outpaced Wilson and Pearce. But once the GOP picks its nominee, ample funds to hold the senate seat will materialize. Pearce can tap his own millions if needed. Wilson has demonstrated she can withstand the extravagance of even Phil Maloof, who smashed records for spending in her first race. Udall could also encounter donor exhaustion. Including the fortune drained from New Mexico by Bill Richardson, Democrats have already burned about half a billion dollars in selecting their presidential nominee.
Lastly, neither Obama nor Clinton may have coattails here. A February Rasmussen poll shows McCain beating Clinton by 12 points and in a dead tie with Obama.
For some Democrats, it’s heresy to even ask whether Udall could lose. Just asking doesn’t mean wishing it. But not even asking could be foolish.