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Know the West

Duke City dustup

The nation is watching the race for New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District


Voters in New Mexico’s first district, which encompasses Albuquerque, are mostly Democrats, but they’ve sent Republicans to the U.S. House of Representatives since 1969. Now, New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid, a Democrat, has a decent chance of unseating Republican incumbent Rep. Heather Wilson. Although the potential upset has drawn national attention, New Mexicans don’t seem thrilled with either candidate.

Wilson has served the district since 1998, voting in near lockstep with President Bush, New Mexico’s senior senator, Pete Domenici, R, and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. A graduate of the Air Force Academy, Wilson supports the war in Iraq, as well as the state’s nuclear weapons and oil and gas industries. Madrid, meanwhile, a New Mexico native who was the state’s first female district court judge, favors increasing the minimum wage, preventing the privatization of Social Security, and establishing a timeline to withdraw troops from Iraq.

In spite of strong support from their respective party loyalists, both women carry baggage that may keep pivotal undecided voters away from the polls. While Wilson calls herself an "independent" Republican, her loyalty to the president and Republican leadership may hurt her, as Bush’s approval rating in the state is at 38 percent. Wilson has also received campaign money from scandal-ridden lobbyist Jack Abramoff; earlier this year, she donated it to the Boy Scouts.

Meanwhile, former state treasurer Robert Vigil and his predecessor, Michael Montoya, are under federal indictment for corruption and extortion that occurred on Attorney General Madrid’s watch. Wilson’s campaign has jumped on the connection, running television ads claiming that Madrid’s office ignored a whistleblower’s attempts to expose the problems. A former state employee, Harold Field — an appointee of New Mexico’s former Republican governor — claims he sent a letter asking for an investigation into the treasurer’s office. Madrid’s office denies ever receiving the letter.

As contributions pour in from around the country — the two candidates have raised more than $4.7 million total, with Wilson ahead by about a million — the race continues to tighten. "Heather Wilson won her last three elections by a comfortable margin," says Brian Sanderoff, president of Albuquerque-based Research Polling Inc. "I don’t want to overstate this, but this one will be closer than the ones in the past." In early September, Wilson was leading Madrid in the polls, 45 to 42 percent, with 10 percent of voters still undecided.

In mid-August, Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., showed up at an Albuquerque campaign rally to support Madrid, and said that it would be "hard to find a district in this country that’s more a symbol (of the need for change) than this district." Outside the rally, four protesters milled around with signs reading "Madrid + Power = corruption in SF" and "Liberals weak on defense."

Beyond raising money and their national profiles, Wilson and Madrid have a bigger question to ask themselves, says Jaime Chávez with the nonpartisan Southwest Voters Registration Education Project: "Is there going to be enough excitement in this race to draw people out?" He adds, "It’s a down and dirty fight, but how strong is (each of) their connections to the constituency base?"

The author is HCN’s Southwest correspondent.

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.