Opportunity for Democrats To Regain Majority Begins With New Mexico Election
By Gregory L. Giroux and Marc Birtel, CQ Staff Writers
(CQ, May 23) -- New Mexico is a major battleground for control of the 106th Congress, a notion that would have been unthinkable 18 months ago.
In November 1996, Republican Steven H. Schiff and Democrat Bill Richardson breezed to re-election in the Albuquerque-based 1st District and northern 3rd District, respectively.
But Richardson resigned the following February to become U.N. ambassador, and conservative Republican minister Bill Redmond won a three-way race in a May special election to finish out Richardson's term in the Democratic stronghold. (1997 CQ Weekly, p. 1154)
Schiff's death in March 1998 from cancer necessitated a special election -- to be held three weeks after the regular June 2 primary -- to fill the remainder of his term in the swing district.
So in a state that often has re-elected House incumbents by handsome margins, New Mexico has two of perhaps the 10 most closely watched congressional elections in the country, with monumental ramifications for control of the House. Democrats hold 207 seats -- just 10 shy of majority party status in the 106th Congress.
Competing to fill the remainder of Schiff's term in the June 23 special election are Republican Heather Wilson, a former state cabinet secretary, and Democrat Phil Maloof, a state senator and member of a prominent New Mexico family.
Wilson has a substantial resume that includes Rhodes Scholar, former Air Force officer and National Security Council staffer in the Bush administration. Early on, she received the endorsements of Schiff, who before his death had announced plans to retire, and veteran GOP Sen. Pete V. Domenici, who felt she would be the strongest Republican candidate against the wealthy Maloof.
Wilson's attacks on Maloof have focused on his experience rather than positions on specific issues.
"Phil is too young and too rich to understand the needs of working families," Wilson said of the 31-year old Maloof, executive vice president of his family's liquor distribution and casino business.
Maloof, a state senator since 1993, counters that he was born, raised and educated in Albuquerque and has a legislative record, whereas Wilson moved to New Mexico in the early 1990s and has never held elected office.
Maloof has been pushing his anti-crime and anti-tax credentials, including his sponsorship of "three strikes and you're out" anti-crime legislation and support of personal and property tax cuts in the state Senate. But he has come under attack for eschewing most candidate forums and debates.
Maloof had raised $306,593 for his bid from last month through May 13, including $225,000 in loans he made to himself. His spending to date is $470,425. Wilson, who reported $293,988 in total receipts since last month, has spent $319,407, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
"Both are running aggressive media campaigns with big television buys," said Brian Sanderoff, president of the Albuquerque-based Research and Polling Inc.
The Wisconsin-based Americans for Limited Terms is planning to buy significant television ads contrasting Maloof's promise to serve three terms with Wilson's refusal to take that pledge.
James Fuller, Wilson's special election campaign manager, said Wilson has pledged to serve no more than 12 years but that a six-year limit would put New Mexico at a disadvantage to larger states with more representatives.
The Green Party candidate in both the primary and special election is University of New Mexico instructor Robert Anderson, who received nearly one-third of the vote in a state legislative election in 1996.
Wilson's special election campaign has overshadowed what was expected to be another tough campaign: the June 2 primary against conservative state Sen. William F. Davis. He defeated Wilson at the March nominating convention, but was beaten the following month for the special election designation.
Davis' refusal to withdraw from the general primary raised the possibility that Republicans would have two different candidates for the special and general elections. But the overlapping primary and special election campaigns appear to have boosted Wilson. A late April poll showed Wilson with 47 percent compared with Davis' 9 percent. Forty percent were undecided.
Maloof is expected to easily defeat management consultant Gary Van Valin in the Democratic primary.
Democrats have aimed their fire at Redmond ever since the conservative minister edged Democratic state corporation commissioner Eric P. Serna by 3 percentage points in a district where the GOP accounts for 28 percent of registered voters. Hispanics and American Indians comprise a majority.
Serna was foiled by the candidacy of the Green Party's Carol A. Miller, whose 17 percent share came largely from moderate and liberal Democrats. To the Democrats' dismay, Miller again will be the Green Party candidate.
There are two front-runners in the eight-candidate Democratic field, Serna and state Attorney General Tom Udall.
Udall waged two unsuccessful congressional bids -- he lost a 1982 primary to Richardson and the 1988 general to Schiff -- before capturing the attorney general's post in 1990. His father Stewart served six years in the House (1955-61) and as Interior secretary to President John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. His uncle Morris ("Mo") served three decades as a Democratic congressman from Arizona (1961-91).
Udall touts his activism in fighting drunken driving, medical fraud and consumer abuse and has aired television ads attacking Redmond for supporting tobacco subsidies and school vouchers. Supporters say his environmental record will attract voters who opted for Miller last year.
"If Tom Udall is the Democratic nominee, the [votes of the] Green Party candidate will be minimized," said Seth Cohen, Udall's deputy campaign manager and nephew.
Serna, a lifelong resident of the 3rd, said his record as a state corporation commissioner demonstrates he would be a stalwart for the district.
"I am not a headline grabber," Serna said. "I am a hands-on, get-the-job-done kind of individual." Serna easily defeated Udall at the party's March nominating convention, but the two are roughly even in the polls with more than one-third of the voters undecided.
There is a deep ethnic split in support for Udall, who is white, and Serna, who is Hispanic. New Mexico is by far the most Hispanic state in the country (39 percent), but is without a Hispanic senator or representative for the first time since the early 1930s.
Redmond is attempting to make inroads in the district, which gave President Clinton a 15 point advantage in the 1996 presidential race. His legislation (HR2538) to establish a presidential commission to review Spanish land grant claims dating to the Mexican War was approved by the House Resources Committee on May 20 and has received ample press coverage.
The Sierra Club weighed in May 18 with radio advertisements criticizing Redmond's environmental record.
New Mexico historically has had close general elections. In just five of the state's 35 gubernatorial elections has the winner captured more than 55 percent of the vote.
This year is expected to follow the same script. Ex-Albuquerque mayor Martin Chavez is a strong favorite to capture the Democratic nomination and will pose a stiff challenge for Gov. Gary E. Johnson, who unseated Democratic Gov. Bruce King in 1994 with less than a majority of the vote.
Chavez, who resigned the mayoralty in November 1997 to run, was the runaway winner at the March nominating convention, amassing 53 percent of delegates' votes.
South Dakota, Montana
The floods that devastated the Dakotas in 1997 caused millions of dollars in damage. The bipartisan unity in bringing federal aid back to South Dakota won over most voters, and both Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle and Republican Rep. John Thune are expected to be rewarded in November.
Senate Minority Leader Daschle has been a strong fundraiser. At the end of March, he had raised more than $3.6 million and had $1.9 million cash on hand.
His nearest Republican opponent, lawyer Ron Schmidt, raised just $133,223, and had $61,483 cash on hand. Schmidt's main primary opposition, state Sen. Alan Aker, had slightly more than $1,000 cash on hand.
Thune won the state's lone House seat in 1996 with 58 percent of the vote after being outspent by Democrat Rick Weiland, a former Daschle aide. Since then, Thune has assembled a sizable treasury for his first re-election bid. He had raised $363,187 as of March 31 and had $223,390 cash on hand.
Democrats have pinned their comeback hopes on deputy state treasurer Jeff Moser.
With no Senate or governor race, Montana voters have little on their ballot June 2. The state's expansive House district, which encompasses the state, will have a competitive race, but not until November.
Democrats have set their sights on freshman Republican Rick Hill, who won in 1996 with only 52 percent. Hill's opponent in November will be Missoula County Prosecutor Robert "Dusty" Deschamps, a self-described moderate Democrat.
Deschamps has raised more than $171,000 as of March 31. But Hill had raised more than twice that amount -- more than $417,000.