Monday, June 19, 2006

The Sacrifical Wolf: How Hard Will John Dendahl Bite? Big Bill Ponders New Strategy; Your Blog Takes You Indepth & Inside On The Big Story 

John Dendahl
Ticket sales for ringside seats to the 2006 New Mexico gubernatorial campaign are about to skyrocket. What was to be an ignored undercard featuring lightweight and unknown Santa Fe Doctor J.R. Damron versus heavyweight champ Big Bill was scratched Saturday as the NM GOP tapped slugger and ex-party chair John Dendahl as Damron's replacement. While the political equation remains largely unchanged, the match-up is now expected to last a few rounds and splatter some of the red stuff on the canvas. It could also have an impact on Big Bill's embryonic campaign for the 08' Dem Prez nomination.

The state GOP Central Committee, meeting in downtown ABQ and facing a collapsing Damron candidacy, heard the Doc bow out and immediately nominated Dendahl. But only 100 of the some 350 committee members were in attendance, raising questions as to whether Dendahl, who once was called upon to resign as party chair by GOP Senator Domenici, can unite the minority party as it struggles to establish itself in a year when Democrats are expecting big things. But Dendahl can definitely raise the room temperature and force Big Bill to devote more time to the NM campaign trail as well as work harder to bring Dems to the polls in what now promises to be an extremely negative and personal attack campaign.

And Dendahl wasted no time making it personal. In a TV interview following his surprise nomination, he called the Governor "mean, selfish and vindictive." And the Democrats went to work on Dendahl's Achilles Heel--his support of drug legalization.

"Not only did the GOP bail on one of their own, they installed a venomous and divisive radical who supports policies, such as legalizing drugs, which are outside of the mainstream." Blasted NM Dem chair John Wertheim.


Dendahl has much to overcome. The state GOP has been wracked by a civil war featuring a breakaway faction led in part by Dendahl, former GOP national committeeman and lawyer/lobbyist Mickey Barnett and legislators Rod Adair and Dan Foley. The war has quieted somewhat and Bernalillo County GOP Chair Fernando C de Baca asserted Saturday that Dendahl is now "the man who can unite all Republicans."

But Dendahl foes pointed out that three years ago he was ousted from his chairmanship by Ramsay Gorham on a 197 to 156 vote and that if a full meeting of the Committee had been held Saturday it may have blocked Dendahl's ascent. On the other hand, the party has written off victory, lowering the stakes of a Dendahl nomination for his enemies. "I think it's a joke" sulked one R who has long opposed Dendahl. "It shows the party has sunken into disarray."

Gorham was ousted by the breakaway faction in an acrimonious fight that ended with the election of Allen Weh as chair.

Dendahl's support of ex-GOP Guv Gary Johnson's call for legalizing marijuana and possibly other drugs was at the root of the split that was slowly healing. Will all be forgotten and forgiven or will the split now be resurrected?


Dem insiders said one of the Guv's first moves to counteract the new challenge could be to form a "Republicans for Richardson" group which he did with success against 02' Guv nominee John Sanchez. "The goal will be to marginalize John and to show that he is out of the mainstream and not acceptable," offered one Dem Alligator.

He pointed out that Dendahl is a much better known and a more capable candidate than Damron, but his 'negatives' are high after his nine years as a controversial chair. "This can cut both ways. Damron was a candidate you could see the R's eventually coming home to. If Dendahl cannot get off to a solid start with his own party, we have a chance to actually get more votes against him than Damron." He analyzed.

But the consensus in the political community was that the Dendahl entry was a development the Guv could have done without.

"This is not about winning the Fourth Floor. That remains a very long shot. This will be about derailing Bill's 08' presidential campaign. Dendahl will do his best to muddy up the Governor. His opponents for the Dem nomination will not have their heads in the sand. They will be watching intently," remarked one longtime Dem power player.


Dendahl has proven himself adept at earning "free media" through controversial statements, but will he have the several million dollars necessary to make his case in the paid media? Will national Republicans come with cash to take the nationally ambitious Governor down a notch? "Watch the oil and gas interests. They have been largely funding the state party in recent months. How they feel about Dendahl will be important as they have the funds to help him get off the ground," informed another of my Alligators watching from the crowded sidelines. I would add that we should also watch the outgoing mail of the GOP National Committee.

Dendahl, 67, faces a time crunch to raise that money. It is probable he will be "dark" all summer while Big Bill, who is already up with positive image TV, will continue to dominate the airwaves. That will raise his positives as he waits for the inevitable attacks. If Dendahl's fundraising abilities are not as adept as his skills for making quotable quips, the Guv will dodge a bullet.

But Big Bill's camp is unlikely to wait for the bullet to come their way. They fired first in the TV wars against Sanchez in 02' despite holding a hefty lead in the polls.

"I look for the Governor's people to move right away to define Dendahl to the NM electorate. They will fire first as they did last time. They will try to put this fire out quickly." predicted our Dem Gator.

Big Bill
While Dendahl's candidacy gave the campaign a needed adrenaline rush, political pros cautioned that Dendahl faces a daunting task in expanding his base beyond Anglo, conservative males. "He has a predicament. He will have to move to the middle to get conservative Democrats and independents and he will have to do it without losing enthusiasm among his base." said a Republican Alligator of long standing.

And then there is Dendahl's Hispanic problem. As a syndicated columnist, he has been arguing for English 'immersion' classes for Spanish speaking students, questioning whether there are any special protections in the NM constitution for Spanish speaking New Mexicans and advocating for very tough measures to close the border with Mexico.

"He has little appeal to Hispanic voters. The risk the Republicans face with this candidacy is the Democrats energizing Hispanics to vote against Dendahl who they will portray as a threat to their culture. If they can't get new voters to the polls, they can still work to pull more regular voting Hispanics into their column," contended the Dem Gator.

But Dendahl, a Santa Fe native, may be able to patch things up with the important bloc, say his sympathizers, by emphasizing school vouchers and tax relief for lower-income New Mexicans.

"John has some good issues and he will have to use them. He will have to get beyond the personal attacks on the Governor if he hopes to get into the mid 40's. School vouchers have appeal across the board, the state surplus is huge and calling for more tax relief could also resonate with many voters," offered our R insider.

But Dendahl is a born and bred political attack dog and is expected to laser in on the various ethics scandal which have plagued the state. So far, voters have not seemed to hold the ethics issues against the Guv. If early attacks with the ethics guns falters, Dendahl's campaign could suffer the same fate as Sanchez's with fundraising petering out and the campaign hitting the wall weeks before Election Day. But top operatives say a candidate like Dendahl will not be so concerned with winning as with inflicting maximum personal damage on the Governor.


Allen Weh
R's at that state Central Committee meeting said party chair Allen Weh made entreaties to others to take the top spot when it became clear Damron did not have the stomach for the task. They said former Guv Johnson's name was tossed about as was that of ABQ GOP State Senator and Lieutenant Governor nominee Sue Wilson Beffort. Neither were reportedly interested. Not a few R's were heard scorching the party hierarchy for their iffy recruitment efforts which for the first time in living memory ended in appointing a nominee for the important office of Governor.

Insiders say Wilson Beffort does not have a close relationship with Dendahl. When she first ran for the senate and while he was party chair, her backers say Dendahl and Barnett supported her R challenger who she managed to narrowly beat. Insiders also say she was ultimately recruited for the Light Guv slot by Senator Domenici just days before the filing deadline. She could be used to build some badly needed bridges between Dendahl and moderate R's. Whether she is so motivated remains to be seen.

Former NM GOP Guv Dave Cargo was the first middle of the road R to break with the Dendahl candidacy telling The New Mexican, "We could not have chosen a more divisive candidate."

Dendahl will face immediate organization challenges, but Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman issued a statement of support for his bombastic ally signaling the national significance of the coming battle and the ties of Dendahl and Mickey Barnett to national headquarters. But again, will moral support be complemented by money?


The Alligators came at the impact of all this on the must-watch ABQ congressional race from several angles. One argued that Dendahl's candidacy will boost GOP turnout, especially with hard-core conservatives who may be tempted to stay home thus helping Rep. Heather Wilson in her battle with Dem nominee Patricia Madrid. Another asserted that the Dendahl bid could actually hurt Heather because "moderate Republicans could be tuned off by the whole tenor of a Dendahl candidacy. Some of them may just stay away forcing Heather to get more Democrat votes."

Because the Dendahl campaign will be most polarizing to liberals and hardcore Democrats, the party can now be expected to target liberal bastions and try to excite them about turning out to vote against Dendahl. The drug legalization controversy may best be used against Dendahl in conservative SE "Little Texas" counties where Richardson is weakest and conservative Dems and R's are most numerous. Some expect "independent" committees to be formed to help carry the negative campaign for the Governor so he can lessen his direct engagement with his feisty opponent.


Reporters love a good fight and Dendahl's entry is music to their ears. But if the attacks are platitudes and too numerous, the media friendly Dendahl could quickly wear out his welcome. His first volley that Big Bill is "mean and vindictive" will have to be backed up with examples if it is to become a mainstay. But much of it will be "old" news and relegated to the back pages, hence the importance of Dendahl raising money to take the game to TV where his team can freshly package the allegations and try to force the Guv into direct engagements.

Dendahl also faces challenges in gathering an experienced campaign team. The last spur-of-the moment GOP effort was last year's Brad Winter ABQ mayoral campaign which suffered when it chose the all-attack-all-the-time approach. Winter was lured into the campaign by the party, but they failed to follow up with money. Damron was also left to the wolves as the party was unable to get heavy hitter donors to put up.

Dendahl needs experienced and dedicated fundraisers yesterday. He may find the same problems Damron did when trying to get people to write a check to oppose a sitting governor who is the odds-on favorite for re-election. The new candidate has family money, but it will be a mental leap to tap his own bank account in the face of the multimillion dollar machine he is now up against.


Being the lightning rod he is, it was no surprise to hear some semi-serious speculation that the Dendahl candidacy was really a long time in the making; that Damron was actually a stalking horse with ties to Dendahl who planned all along to drop out at the last minute. Dendahl tried to capture the Guv nomination in 94' but came in third in a field of four (Gary Johnson won) and could not be expected to be nominated by R's in the 06' primary. Black helicopters could be heard whirring as this tale was spun, but it was too much fun to pass up.


TV debates could prove tricky for Big Bill. The Bad Boy John-Big Bill match-up is a made for TV circus and there will likely be numerous offers. If the Guv is polling well he may choose to decline several of them risking criticism, but depriving Dendahl of a statewide platform where he could further bloody the chief executive's nose.


Back in January I appeared with Dendahl as a guest analyst on KNME-TV for the Guv's "State-of-the-State" Speech. He said then that Damron would have trouble beating Big Bill but that the Guv's margin of victory "would be less" than it was four years ago. That margin was a landslide of 16 points. Can Dendahl do any better? If he can tap in to the animosity he claims exists towards the Governor, he has a good shot. But Big Bill, while shaking his head over the loss of Damron, will also now look at the opportunity not just the danger of the R's wild card candidacy.

A break past 60%, historically difficult for any Governor, may actually have been more difficult against Damron who came with neither past baggage or a record of polarization. But Dendahl's suitcase is full and while he is much more dangerous than Damron, he also offers, as one of my analysts put it, "the chance for the big play; a complete demonization of Dendahl as a radical out of the mainstream opponent. That's something that could not be done to Damron." Still, most of the Alligators think it is difficult for a Guv in our state to take it over 60% and believe 55-58% is his range. They await developments before revising. The 60% is important to the Guv's camp as they would like to make a forceful debut on the presidential stage. A break much below 60%, say 55% or lower, could impact national fundraising and momentum.

John Dendahl says he got involved in conservative politics after reading Barry Goldwater's seminal writings. The Arizona senator was offered up as the sacrificial lamb against President Johnson in 1964. John Dendahl is more akin to a sacrificial wolf, but as he demonstrated this weekend and as he has throughout his lengthy stint in La Politica, he is capable of the big surprise. He will need more of them if he is to inflict serious damage on the state's premier power player.

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