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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

ANOTHER BIG FOOT DROPS: IT'S PEARCE VS. WILSON; FALLOUT ACROSS POLITICAL SPECTRUM AS GOP SENATE SHOWDOWN LOOMS; COMPLETE COVERAGE & ANALYSIS IS NEXT 

  • ABQ JOURNAL COVERAGE HERE
  • LAS CRUCES SUN-NEWS COVERAGE HERE
  • SANTA FE NEW MEXICAN & AP COVERAGE HERE
  • PEARCE INTERVIEW WITH THE HILL; HOW HE TOLD HEATHER

Steve Pearce entered New Mexico's World Series of Political Poker Tuesday, anteing up a secure seat in the US House of Representatives for a seat at the table with Heather Wilson. The forthcoming battle between the two US House members for the Republican nomination for the US Senate seat being vacated by Pete Domenici will determine who will carry their party's banner into battle against the Democrats in 2008 and also decide the direction of New Mexican Republicanism well into this new century.

The Pearce announcement that he will vacate the southern congressional seat after three terms set off a scramble to succeed him. More details on that in a moment, but first complete coverage of the historic Wilson-Pearce showdown.

The early insider betting was heavy on the Pearce side, with the odds on the 60 year old southern NM congressman sure to come down when Wilson of ABQ rises to the challenge. She has little choice, according to the most astute political minds here and on the banks of the Potomac.

"She needs to put the brakes on Pearce. She starts off in the lead, but only because of her name ID. She is known throughout the state because of her TV campaigns. He is going to slowly but surely overtake her unless she does something to stop him.

"His conservative views are attractive in a primary. Candidates with firmly defined viewpoints win primaries. That's Pearce. Because she has had to please Democrats in her district, Wilson in many ways is an orphan in her own party," analyzed Democratic pollster and consultant Harry Pavlides whose involvement in state politics dates back 35 years.

Longtime New Mexico pollster Brian Sanderoff also raised the caution flag for Wilson, saying:

"Pearce has been a pretty conservative congressman who represents a conservative district and he could maintain that message through the primary."

HEATHER'S HAND

Wilson, a renowned political fighter who has scored impressive victories in her ABQ congressional district since first taking it in '98 and where Dems outnumber R's by over 30,000, faces perhaps her most daunting political task in getting Republicans to go against their natural instincts and not vote with the most conservative candidate.

"Maybe she moves further to the right to invade his conservative base. Perhaps she also argues that he is outside the mainstream," offered one of our Alligators gaming the race.

But many highly likely voters---right to life advocates, evangelicals and anti-immigration Republicans are going to be difficult, if not impossible, to peel away from Pearce, say top analysts.

They say Pearce will have no trouble turning in a landslide in his southern district. The question is can Heather pull off her own landslide in Bernalillo County and Rio Rancho where about 40% of the June '08 GOP vote will be cast?

Heather appears to need landslide totals in the state's largest county and suburbs because Pearce, an oilman from Hobbs, could be a favorite in the oil and gas region of San Juan County in the Four Corners where there is a large R population. She also faces headwinds elsewhere.

Pearce should have easy pickings on the east side, in Quay, Roosevelt and Curry counties. Heather should be able to battle him in Republican heavy Los Alamos. She also has a good shot at the R's in the Spanish north, but they are few and far between.

If Heather is unable to make inroads in rural NM it will mean an ABQ landslide or bust for her, increasing the odds of a Pearce win, but her supporters argue Heather's dogged determination is her best weapon.

"She has been in the lobster pot many times, crawled out of the boiling water and then dropped the other guy in the pot. Steve has not been in the crucible of combat like her," one Alligator colorfully commented.

EARLY ALARMS

The first inklings that Pearce could make inroads in big Bernalillo County came last December when R's aligned with Pearce supported Fernando C De Baca for re-election as Bernalillo County Republican Chairman. He held off a challenge from pro-Wilson candidate, Mario Burgos.

When Allen Weh was re-elected chairman of the party this year, he had to overcome objections from rural Republicans who charged that the party was too focused on Wilson and not enough on other office seekers, yet another sign of things to come.

IN THE GUTTER?

How negative will the intra-party battle royal get? Most opinion leaders we sought out predicted the race would start off relatively mild, but they worried about it getting personal and inflicting severe damage on both Heather and Steve. That, they fretted, could hand the Senate seat to the Dems in November.

The recent vintage of NM and national consultants has been vicious, running almost exclusively negative campaigns. If they turn on each other in this epic face-off, blood could spill on the rest of the GOP ticket, including ABQ congressional hopeful Darren White and whoever takes the GOP congressional nomination down south.

INSIDE THE DECISION

Insiders say Pearce was deluged with opinion on whether to take the plunge.

"I believe much of his decision came down to timing. This was simply the right time for him." Said one Washington insider familiar with Pearce's thinking.

"There was some discussion that his district could be changed in the redistricting of 2011, making it more difficult for him to to hold the House seat, but the major reasons were distinct. He believes he can win the primary and the November election and has the resources to do it." Said our D.C. Gator.

Those "resources" could total up to $2 million for each of our combatants in the June primary. Our finance sources say Pearce was also influenced to run by lining up support from the Club for Growth, a Republican group that gets involved in GOP primaries and comes down on the side of the conservative.

"They will be able to push large money donors his way. Their main concern is the tax and spend issue, and Pearce has voted the way they like," explained our reliable source.

That raises the question of what exactly will be the big issues in this first-ever primary race between two NM US Reps.

"I don't think Iraq will be as big of a deal as some might expect. I think the tax and spend issue will be the major focus," argued Republican Kurt Lohbeck, in the NM political game since '59.

While Pearce has been more supportive than Wilson of Bush administration policies on the unpopular war, Wilson has also been generally on board with the White House--to her detriment in a general election campaign--but not so much in a Republican primary.

BY THE NUMBERS

NM Republicans total about 354,000 or 33% of the state's 1, 077,000 voters. Anticipated turnout for the Pearce-Wilson contest is about 38% to 40%, or about 135,000. But it could be lower. Television ads will play an important role, but not a supreme one. Direct mail, phone trees, push polling, door-to-door campaigning and other grass roots activities will be critical components in this small turnout, high-stakes event.

Get out the vote efforts will also be key. If there is a closely contested primary to fill Pearce's shoes in the US House, that could boost turnout in his district and to his benefit. On the other hand, if Sheriff White goes unchallenged in the GOP primary for Heather's ABQ House seat, that could be a lost opportunity for her as she might benefit from the increased turnout a contested House primary would bring in her ABQ stronghold.

PILING ON PEARCE

NM Dems released a statement saying Pearce deserves to be fired not promoted because of his support of Bush-Cheney policies. Would he be the weakest candidate against a Democrat in November? Maybe. Maybe not.

If Pearce is locked in on the hard-right and unable to move near the center, pollster Sanderoff says New Mexico's moderate tradition will send Pearce home to Hobbs. Heather, who has already made peace offerings to Dems in the past, could be better positioned to pick up the 25% of the Dems an R contender needs to take a statewide race.

ABQ Mayor Marty Chavez's camp want Pearce as a Senate opponent more than Heather, thinking his conservative reputation will indeed doom him. And Pearce and Wilson both want Marty as their opponent because polling shows they have a decent shot against him. The R's remind everyone Chavez lost the '98 Governor's race to Republican Gary Johnson.

Speaking of Governor, the current one, Big Bill, sent out a teasing news release just 90 minutes or so after Pearce's announcement started moving across computer screens coast to coast. It urged Pearce to override President Bush's veto of the children's health care program--SCHIP--which has become a rallying cry against the President and Republicans. (What will Wilson do? Stay tuned.).

Was this the first shot in a NM US Senate race involving Big Bill? His fan club hoped so, but the answer will remain unknown, at least until late January or February 5th when the Presidential contest and Big Bill's fortunes in it are finally decided.

MADRID'S MOOD

Patricia Madrid played cat and mouse with your blog Tuesday, but we can't blame her much. She had told us last week she had ruled out a run for the ABQ congressional seat. But the former Dem Attorney General told us Tuesday while she has ruled out a run for the Dem Senate nod, she now has changed her mind and wants to leave the door open a crack for a run at the House seat she lost to Heather Wilson by less than an a thousand votes in 2006.

Patsy cited the changing players at the political poker table, calling the situation "fluid." We don't get the impression, however, that she is warming to the idea of another congressional run, but we note the mood change.

THE REPUBLICAN BENCH

The Pearce announcement wasn't a shocker, but neither was it as routine as your morning cup of coffee. It caught many R's off guard, and no big name possible Republican replacements for Pearce immediately popped up. But late Tuesday, several insiders dropped the name of Dona Ana County State Senator and Minority Whip Lee Rawson. Until he says otherwise, his name moves to near top of the list.

Also on that list is Socorro State Rep. Don Tripp, Roswell oilman Phelps Anderson, Sierra County GOP Chairman Earl Greer and restaurant chain owner Ed Tinsley. GOP State Reps Gray of Artesia and Bratton of Lea, also heard their names circulating.

Rawson, in real estate in Dona Ana County, has been in the Legislature 20 years. He has the profile for the district where the GOP "has the advantage," said consultant Pavlides.

Does Rawson want out of the Roundhouse and to take a shot at walking through the Rotunda of Capitol Hill? We'll know soon enough.

THE DEM SHAKE-UP
Cervantes
As for the Dems, the chief curiosity is whether Dona Ana County State Rep. Joe Cervantes gets in the Democratic chase for the Pearce House seat. He told me Tuesday he will "consult with advisers and pollsters" today as he weighs his move. He is the cautious sort, but has said previously an open US House seat would draw his attention. He would be the leading and so far only Hispanic in the race.

Former Dona Ana County Commissioner Harry Teague of Hobbs, perhaps getting wind of what Pearce was up to (his family is close to Steve's in Hobbs and he has contributed money to the congressman) announced he will run for the Democratic nomination just before Pearce's decision leaked.

Teague has big oil money, is well connected in the Democratic Party and therefore is an instant player. He joins Dona Ana County Commissioner Bill McCamley and '06 Dem nominee Al Kissling in the primary contest. In Santa Fe, there were even rumblings that State Sen. John Arthur Smith, who lost to Pearce in '02, was looking at the open seat and the Dem nomination.

Insider Dems in the state's money center in Albuquerque report that McCamley could be hit hardest by the Teague entrance and the possibility of Cervantes coming in.

"Teague will freeze up the money to McCamley from the south and east side. He will try to starve him out of the race. He can't do that with Cervantes who also has business interests and would be expected to self-finance, if he has to. Kissling has no funding, and is now unlikely to make it on the ballot," analyzed our money maven.

ONE SHOT FOR GLORY

Getting on the precious primary ballot. That's the $500,000 or so question. The rules say you must get 20% of the delegate votes at the March pre-primary convention. Cervantes is a lock. Teague looks good if he is serious and spends. McCamley may need to come with more punch to avoid getting sidelined by the party powers who will argue the 29 year old will have another chance someday.

As for the November election, the Cervantes camp is concerned that the district does not set up well for an Hispanic victory. One has never won there. It could be made more Democratic at the 2011 legislative redistricting, but this is an open congressional seat, a near wonder. You delay at your own peril.

Cervantes, from a longtime chile growing family, would be favored in a primary with two Anglo challengers. He can still take it against a single Anglo challenger as the old New Mexico axiom that Hispanics win Democratic primaries has not been revoked. But the main event in November of '08 will be a bear of a contest.

A national Democratic tsunami would probably sweep Cervantes to victory. Without such a wave, resistance to the attorney in "Little Texas" in the east and south could be too rigid for him to overcome.

The GOP certainly hopes for that or a similar scenario. Pearce's gutsy decision to go all in means his party risks having no GOP NM US House members. And if the Senate seat goes D, they would be shut out completely.

PETE'S POSITION

The Pearce camp got cute and are calling themselves "People For Pearce." You know, like "People for Pete." Pete, of course, being US Senator Pete Domenici who has made the slogan famous since serving in the Senate since 1973.

Opinion is divided on whether the ailing Senate legend who announced his retirement and set off the political earthquake that is keeping bloggers and news types in alternate states of euphoria and exhaustion, will endorse Heather Wilson in her race against Pearce.

Such an endorsement could help galvanize support for Heather, but not as much as it did when Pete went for her in the '98 US House GOP primary. Today he is a lame duck.

Domenici may also hesitate if he thinks about when retiring US GOP Rep. Joe Skeen, also suffering from a degenerative disease like Pete, announced in 2002 that he was endorsing Ed Tinsley in a crowded Republican primary. But you don't see any "Congressman Tinsley" in your history books; it's Congressman Pearce.

THESE SPECIAL DAYS

Pete may or may not endorse, but no man can stop the future from being born. You and I are eyewitnesses to the beginnings of a new political era for this great state of ours. As when a child is being born, you are not yet wondering what the babe will weigh or whether it's a boy or a girl, you simply marvel at the miracle of the event.

Democracy is dancing uninhibited--on a crowded floor; the way it was intended, but rarely seen in our lifetimes. Like the birth of a child, it has a miraculous quality. We are free to choose. May it ever be so.

I'm Joe Monahan, reporting to you from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2007
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