Key to the House May Be in New Mexico

Times Staff Writer

ALBUQUERQUE -- Heather Wilson made national headlines recently by forcing the Bush administration to brief members of Congress on its domestic wiretapping program.

But here at home, the Republican congresswoman defends Bush’s tax cuts and prescription drug plan, reaches out to AIDS patients and pursues issues -- like protecting pets -- that transcend partisan labels.

“This is not a typical Republican district,” Wilson said, “and I’m not a typical Republican.”

Indeed, New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, centered in Albuquerque, is one of the most politically confounding places in the country.


It is also might be the key to the fight for control of the House of Representatives.

There will be 435 House races nationwide in November. But only a few dozen appear competitive -- none of them in California. To win back the House, Democrats must capture at least 15 seats, a tough task given their limited opportunities. They hope to take several GOP-held seats vacated by retirements. But to win a majority, Democrats must also defeat a good number of Republican incumbents, and Wilson is a top target.

On paper, the race looks promising for Democrats. They enjoy a 10-point edge in voter registration. They have recruited a top-flight challenger, state Atty. Gen. Patricia Madrid, a Latina whose crime-fighting credentials have traditionally been a big help in New Mexico. More than one in three voters in the district is Latino.

But, of course, elections are never won on paper.

Since Wilson’s House seat was created nearly 40 years ago, no incumbent has ever been defeated. And despite the fact that registered Democrats have always outnumbered Republicans, no Democrat has ever been elected from the high-desert district. Wilson, 45, is undefeated after five tough campaigns, and is braced for a sixth.

“I don’t take it personally anymore,” she said, deadpan.

Most analysts give Wilson an edge in November, unless a wave sweeps the country, the kind of angry tide that carried Republicans to power in 1994.

Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes a nonpartisan campaign newsletter in Washington, is one of many political experts who forecast Democratic gains this fall. The question, he and others said, is whether Democrats can nationalize the election and win big -- the way Republicans did -- or if the GOP can minimize its losses by turning each House race into a contest focused on personalities and local concerns.

The Wilson-Madrid matchup offers a test case.

“It could be the desire for change is so big this election is not about Heather Wilson,” Rothenberg said. “It’s about George W. Bush. It’s about [indicted former White House aide] Scooter Libby. It’s about the war in Iraq. It’s about the prescription drug benefit. Her task is to say, ‘This is about me, what I’ve done in Washington.’ ”

Wilson, a competitive rower in college, is used to pushing against the current. Democrats Al Gore and John F. Kerry narrowly won her district in the last two presidential campaigns. In 2004, Democrats swept 12 of 14 races in Bernalillo County, which makes up most of the district. Wilson, at the same time, was reelected with 54% of the vote.

The 1st Congressional District, where Route 66 meets the Rio Grande, is something like 50-50 America in miniature. It has a liberal university community at its core and conservative enclaves near the Sandia Mountains to the east, and in the fast-growing suburbs to the west. Mostly urban and suburban, it is home to thousands of ticket-splitting moderate and independent voters who cross party lines as casually as they commute across the winding river.

There are paradoxes: bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic and wind-swept views that go on for miles; one of the nation’s biggest populations of scientists and engineers, per capita, and a troublesome high school dropout rate.

Wilson offers her own contrasts.

She is a relative newcomer, arriving 15 years ago in a state where families can trace their roots back centuries. A former Air Force officer, her close-cropped hair, functional wardrobe and ramrod posture stand out in a laid-back culture of bright colors and open-neck collars. She speaks crisply but easily makes small talk, conveying a warmth that seems to elude TV cameras.

Wilson grew up in New Hampshire in a family that was apolitical but patriotic. “I remember Memorial Day parades,” she said, whizzing past the Sandia Mountains between stops. “If you didn’t get your butt up off the sidewalk when the flag went by, you were hauled up by the back of your neck.”

Wilson graduated from the Air Force Academy (the man who nominated her was a Democrat, so she became one as well), was a Rhodes Scholar, served in the Air Force and worked for two years on the National Security Council under the first President Bush. She became a Republican in her 20s, Wilson said, because she liked the party’s small-government, strong-defense philosophy.

She moved to New Mexico in 1991 to marry. Her husband, an attorney, lives in Albuquerque with the couple’s son and daughter.

Seven years later, Wilson was elected to Congress on her first try, thanks in good part to her military background and support for fat defense budgets. The district is home to Kirtland Air Force Base and the Sandia National Laboratories, a major nuclear weapons research site, and defense is a pocketbook issue for many voters. “That’s the Republicans’ hole card,” said Joe Monahan, who analyzes New Mexico politics on his self-titled website. “Bringing home a couple billion for the labs.”

Wilson has a mostly conservative voting record, though in recent years her stance has grown more moderate. She firmly supports the war in Iraq and opposed efforts to investigate the intelligence failures leading up to the U.S. invasion. She voted to renew the Patriot Act and to extend the Bush tax cuts.

Madrid has called Wilson “a rubber stamp for the Bush-Cheney administration,” an attack Democrats are likely to press as long as the president’s popularity suffers. But Wilson has broken with Bush and fellow Republicans on several occasions.

She called for Tom DeLay to step aside as majority leader after his indictment in Texas. (Wilson also returned $10,000 from DeLay’s political action committee and gave away the contributions she received from lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former GOP Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham.)

Last November, Wilson was one of 14 House Republicans to vote against a budget-cutting plan that, she said, unduly hurt foster parents and Medicaid recipients.

Most conspicuously, Wilson became the first House Republican to break ranks and call for an investigation of the administration’s domestic surveillance program. Wilson, who heads the House subcommittee that oversees the National Security Agency, delivered a stiff lecture on the separation of powers and expressed “serious concerns and questions” about the program. In response, the administration abruptly changed course and provided a closed-door briefing for Wilson and other committee members.

Democrats scoffed at the move. “If Heather Wilson is trying to raise her profile by publicly taking on the Republican establishment, it must be an election year,” said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Some of Wilson’s fellow Republicans also assailed her actions. A conservative Wall Street Journal columnist suggested that Wilson had placed her personal interests ahead of the nation’s, saying “the local politics of Albuquerque is now setting national security policy.”

Wilson’s voice grows cold as she rejects the assertion. “That’s rubbish,” she said. “This issue and national security more generally is more important than anybody’s election.”

Still, the assault from both sides shows the difficult path Wilson must follow between now and November. “She needs to hold onto moderate-to-conservative Democrats disenchanted with Bush,” said Brian Sanderoff, an independent Albuquerque pollster. At the same time, “She needs to take the risk of alienating some of her Republican base.” In short, he said, “She has to walk a political tightrope.”