Senate race gets revved up

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — The Labor Day weekend usually is the kick off for the following year’s major political campaigns. This year may be a little different however.
The state legislature’s special session on redistricting undoubtedly will grab many of the headlines for a few weeks. That likely means no major announcements by the candidates but it won’t stop behind-the-scenes jockeying.
The wide open U.S. Senate race to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman picked up four major candidates very quickly last spring but has been rather quiet since then.
Here is where that contest stands at this point. The Democratic primary features a struggle between 1st Congressional District Rep. Martin Heinrich and state Auditor Hector Balderas. Andres Valdes, an Albuquerque activist, also has announced.
On the Republican side of the ballot are former 1st Congressional District Rep. Heather Wilson and Lt. Gov. John Sanchez. Two other candidates, Las Cruces businessman Greg Sowards and William English of Alamogordo, also are in the race.
These lineups promise exciting primary elections on both sides followed by a hard fought general election battle. This is as it should be for an important U.S. Senate seat that traditionally only comes open every few decades in New Mexico.
Lt. Gov. Sanchez will be very busy the next few weeks presiding over the state Senate during the redistricting session that also is being asked to consider close to a dozen additional items.
Most of the controversy that is expected in the session is likely to occur in the Senate. Sanchez will have his hands full trying to hold things together. He may get his name in the paper a lot but it may not be the sort of news that will help his campaign.
Don’t be surprised to see senators rig some votes so that Sanchez will have to break ties on controversial issues. They did it to former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish.
During Sanchez’s two-year state House term early last decade, his voting record was very moderate but he has had the banner of conservatism wrapped around him for this race.
Sanchez appeared a little uneasy in his new clothes at first but with polls showing 60 percent of New Mexico Republican voters embracing the tea party, he can win the primary with just that element on his side.
Early Republican frontrunner Heather Wilson calls herself a conservative but has trouble making voters believe it. The truth is that winning a general election in the Albuquerque area requires a fairly moderate voting record. But it doesn’t win GOP primary elections.
So Wilson is bypassing a fight with Sanchez at this time by firing at Democrat frontrunner Martin Heinrich. If she can get Republican voters thinking she is the best candidate to beat Heinrich, maybe she can convince primary election voters to give her a shot in the general election.
Heinrich is taking the bait and firing back at Wilson for causing a national fiscal crisis by supporting two wars and tax breaks for the wealthy. Those charges are likely to help Wilson in her primary election so her strategy appears to be working.
 Hector Balderas recently has put out the news that the Politico.com website has tabbed him as possibly the best underdog candidate for the U.S. Senate anywhere in the nation.
  That’s pretty heady stuff. Balderas can claim victory in two statewide primaries and two general elections for state auditor. Lt. Gov. Sanchez can claim victory in a gubernatorial primary and a lieutenant gubernatorial primary, plus victory as a running mate with Gov. Susana Martinez.
 These statewide victories for Balderas and Sanchez are important because it means they both have the beginnings of an organization in every county.
  And don’t forget Lt. Gov. Sanchez’s official tour of all 33 counties assigned by Gov.-elect Martinez before either one of them even took office. The current frontrunners, Wilson and Heinrich, never have won a statewide race.