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Breaking Bad

New developments in the New Mexico Senate race.

6:05 PM, Feb 29, 2012 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Republican hopes of winning the Senate in 2012 took a major hit Tuesday when Maine senator Olympia Snowe announced her retirement. The late notice gave Republicans in the state, as well as those in Washington, D.C., little time to recruit a viable candidate and build an organization that might allow them to hold the seat in November. The unexpected retirement takes a nearly certain Republican seat and makes it a likely Democratic one.

New Mexico

Snowe’s departure will increase the attention on another Republican woman—a considerably more conservative one—whose race for the Senate could well determine which party holds a majority at the beginning of 2013—Heather Wilson.

The former New Mexico congresswoman was considered a rising star in the Republican party in 2008. A self-described commonsense conservative, her possible ascension that year to the Senate would have made her the first female from that state to serve in the upper chamber of Congress.

She never got the opportunity.

Wilson lost in a tough Republican primary to Representative Steve Pearce, who ran to her right on, well, pretty much everything. It was a primary that seemed designed to test the Buckley Rule: William F. Buckley’s admonition that conservatives ought to vote for the most electable conservative candidate in a given race. Wilson had the endorsements of many in the New Mexico Republican establishment, including retiring senator Pete Domenici, and her supporters argued that Pearce was too conservative to be elected statewide in a purplish-blue state. But intensity matters, and Pearce had the enthusiastic support of the growing conservative movement in the state and national backing from the Club for Growth.

In June, Pearce held off a late surge from Wilson to win the primary 51 percent – 49 percent. Five months later he was trounced by Tom Udall, 61-38, a margin even larger than Barack Obama’s 57-42 defeat of John McCain in the state.

Wilson is running again this year, trying to replace retiring Democratic senator Jeff Bingaman. But the odds that she will face a serious challenge from the right seem to be diminishing every day. Earlier this month, Lieutenant Governor John Sanchez, who had been endorsed by Senator Rand Paul, dropped out of the race. Wilson’s remaining opponent in the Republican primary, businessman Greg Sowards, has been endorsed by former Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle and has indicated some willingness to spend his own money to win. 

Sowards speaks the language of the Tea Party, with regular campaign references to the Constitution, the Framers, the overreach of the federal government, and the corruption of runaway spending.

“The free market is the only way. Anything less destroys the American Dream and turns our world into a bureaucratic nightmare,” he said in one recent speech. “People of New Mexico are tired of being part of Washington’s spending problem and are ready for leadership that focuses on creating an environment that encourages new businesses to start and grow while creating jobs for our children,” he wrote in an op-ed. A TV ad for his candidacy declares: “Sowards will get government off our back and out of our lives.” And a posting on his campaign website claims that “stimulus spending” shares “socialism’s central tenant [sic]: with the right tools for gathering information and the right people to interpret this data, utopian paradise is attainable with the right plan.”

They’re the kind of arguments that helped Republicans make gains in congressional elections two years ago. But Sowards may not be the best man to make them.

The vast majority of his income comes from the government. He lists just two sources of income on the personal financial disclosure form he filed with the U.S. Senate to run for office: New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Departmen,t and New Mexico Child Care Assistance. The taxpayer money goes to Kids’ Kountry, a childcare business that he runs with his wife – a total of some $1.6 million since 1998.

More problematic: Sowards pushed New Mexico governor Bill Richardson to use stimulus funds – what his campaign website calls an example of “Obama’s socialism” – to keep that money coming. And he did so in the fall of 2010, at precisely the time Republicans around the country were betting their campaigns on arguments against the stimulus and other Obama economic policies.

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