Perils of New Mexico's GOP Senate Primary

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By Hal Rhodes

By this time next year, New Mexico Democratic and Republican voters will have chosen their nominees for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the Democrat who was first elected to that seat in 1982.
Chances are Dems will have settled on either 1st Dist. Congressman Martin Heinrich or state Auditor Hector Balderas.
Republicans, in turn, will likely have opted for Heather Wilson, a former 1st Dist. Congresswoman, or Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, although two lesser-known GOP hopefuls, Greg Sowards and Bill English, are also running.
At this distance, 11 months out, polls are little more than points of departure in a race yet to take shape. Still, a survey conducted late last month by the firm of Public Policy Polling had Heinrich leading Balderas by a margin of two-to-one.
It also found Wilson outdistancing Sanchez by more than two-to-one, 52 to 24 percent, with Sowards and English in the single digits.
 Make of it what you will, but a late April Magellan Data and Mapping Strategies poll put Wilson at 59 percent to Sanchez 17 percent, suggesting some slippage in Wilson’s numbers between April and June.
On the other hand, that April survey was taken before Sanchez officially entered the race, and simply by announcing his candidacy, Sanchez’s numbers were bound to hike a bit.
In any case, more important numbers will be in play next year at this time when the Republican nominee discovers what it’s like between the rock and the hard place.
Simply put, Wilson and Sanchez are faced with balancing two conflicting political imperatives for either of them to prevail in the fall of 2012.
First, they must fashion campaigns that resonate with Republican primary voters, throw them the red meat that roils the partisan passions.
Then, very quickly, they must mute all that primary campaign rhetoric calculated to rouse the faithful, lest it alienate the independent and Democratic voters they will need in November to win.
  It’s a tall order. Overwhelmingly, those Republicans who vote in GOP primaries constitute the party’s hard-core, right-leaning base.
Yet, come the general election, there are not enough of them to push their Senate nominee over the top without an assist from some Democrats and Independents.
In short, the Senate hopeful must mollify her or his hard-right base without alienating moderate Democrats and independents.
And there’s the peril for Wilson or Sanchez, because for the nonce virtually all reliable polls show congressional Republican to be held in low esteem by most prospective 2012 voters who are not a part of the core GOP base.
A national CBS News survey last week found over 70 percent of those polled giving congressional Republicans thumbs-down for their role in subverting negotiations to raise the debt ceiling, close tax loopholes and make significant spending cuts.
Two-thirds of those polled want upper-income tax hikes to be part of any deficit reduction deal, something Republicans in Congress adamantly oppose.
The 30 percent who back the GOP on these matters are, of course, the party’s core base which, increasingly, has come to be dominated by the Tea Party crowd.
Elected last year on the Tea Party wave, those Republicans now dominate the House of Representatives and have rendered John Boehner one of the most enfeebled House Speakers in memory, unable to lead or compromise.
So what are the likes of John Sanchez and Heather Wilson to do? Well, last week, both signed a “pledge” to support the GOP’s congressional budget plan which decimates Medicare as we know it.
It might delight Republican primary voters in June, but come the fall 2012, it leaves the Republican nominee contemplating the hard place and some big-time flip-flops going into November.
Hal Rhodes
© 2011 New Mexico News Services