The biggest surprise so far in this year’s First Congressional District race between incumbent Heather Wilson and challenger Patricia Madrid has been the stumbling campaign mounted by Wilson. Wilson’s wobbles have helped Madrid gain traction for what many Democrats are starting to feel will be a huge upset in November.
To put this surprising development in context, remember two hard facts.
First, this Congressional District, in which Democrats hold about an eight-
And second, only three incumbent members in the entire Congress, out of 432 running, lost to challengers two years ago. That’s how hard it is to pry a lawmaker out of office once the advantages of incumbency are wheeled into play.
So even with an electorate grown restive at the Iraqi swamp mess and an economy that can’t shake the hangover from the Bush administration’s raids on the Treasury, most national commentators are predicting it is unlikely that as many as even a dozen incumbents will bite the dust this time around, let alone the 15 needed to turn the House over to Democratic control.
Of course, Madrid’s ascendancy is not completely the result of bungling by Wilson. The canny attorney general has run a clever and adequately financed campaign so far.
Still, we know that mistakes can trip up a candidate at any time, and there are still six long weeks of an uphill struggle ahead, so I don’t want to jinx Madrid by crowing prematurely, but an awful lot of politicos around town were shocked at the dead heat result between the two in the first of the Journal’s election voter polls.
That front-page story seemed to catch Wilson’s campaign by surprise, too. After all, she’s won five straight elections in the district (over Phil Maloof twice, John Kelly once and Richard Romero two times), and if her numbers in the past have not exactly been avalanche-sized, neither has she had to work up much of a sweat to vanquish all previous challengers.
So to suddenly discover, at the gun for the sprint to the finish line, that this race is too close to call, must have been very unsettling for the Wilson camp followers. I think they are pressing.
Their ads have taken on an even nastier tone than before. They weren’t quick to send back campaign funds derived from some of the Washington Republicans who are under indictment or investigation for scandals.
They’re scrambling to walk the fine line between docile, subservient loyalty to Bush policies (which GOP voters are hoping to hear) and independent, critical and thoughtful positions on those policies (which Dems and Independents might be impressed by).
The result should have been predictable, as was foreseen by Confucius, centuries ago (or maybe it was Burma Shave—I don’t quite remember which): “He who walks in middle of road gets hit by trucks (ox carts?) going both ways.”
Wilson, for the first time ever, seems uncertain. Without warning her strong suit, her membership in the Greek chorus of support for everything Dubya tosses into the air has become a huge liability. Now a peck on the cheek from Bush plays like a stigma.
Wilson’s television ads, those expensive, inescapable and omnipresent reminders of her campaign, have stopped being effective. Now each repetition of them with their slanted and innuendo-filled accusations against Madrid seems to detract from the position Wilson has staked-out: that Madrid has ethical issues and Wilson does not.
But the sheer volume of the accusations belies their content: Piling on more and more accusations simply leaves the viewer feeling the accuser is the ethically challenged one, the negative one, the mud-slinger, the dirty campaigner.
After initially responding to each Wilson charge with one of her own about the Congresswoman’s possible guilt through association with the Tom DeLays and the Jack Abramoffs of the Republican cosmos, Madrid has moved on in her ads to press home the gaping, vulnerable soft spots on the Wilson record, especially the Medicare prescription drug bill and the interminable occupation of Iraq.
This approach has, like an adept martial arts fighter’s ploy of redirecting an opponent’s strength back against him, turned Wilson’s campaign fundraising superiority into a liability, not an asset. Heather is spending more and more but getting less and less from it. Her accusations are ringing hollow, or worse: futile.
In reality, though, Wilson’s options are limited. What can she say about her support for a presidency that fully 62 percent of the American people now say is headed in the wrong direction?
“I tried to point out …”
“I asked lots of questions …”
“The dog ate my homework …”
The soldiers in Iraq are writing home their honest assessment of what’s going on over there. Their families are sharing those grave misgivings with anyone who will sit still long enough to listen. The voters have lost all faith in the Bush leadership team.
It is clearly time for a change. If Wilson wants to avoid the ignominy of being the first incumbent in the history of the First Congressional District to get so far out of touch with her constituents that they vote her out of office, she will need to swallow hard and reverse course.
Unfortunately for her, that just might look like “cutting and running.”