Flies buzzed around the heads of attendees seated on the patio of Socorro's Capitol Bar, a brick saloon near the town's plaza where, at the turn of the 20th century, the bar's one-time owner, Justice of the Peace Amos Green, held court and jailed the guilty.

More than 100 years later, US Senate candidate Martin Heinrich was on trial by a Democratic base at a quick meet-and-greet in a county where more than 75 percent of voters pulled the lever for Democratic US Sen. Jeff Bingaman in 2006. It was a fundraiser attended by a few dozen of the Democratic faithful. Suggested donation: $25.

The court that Saturday was friendly. One of the first questions, a softball, came from a supporter named Bill.

"If there's one message…I can take back to my mom and family and say, 'This is why I think we should vote for Martin,' will you give me that?" he asked. "That way, I don't have to spend a lot of time; I can get the nuts and bolts and tell them, 'This is going to be a good reason.'"

"Absolutely," Heinrich replied.

It was a hot, long day for Heinrich, with campaign stops in Las Cruces, Socorro and back up to the Valencia County Democratic headquarters to rouse a small group of volunteers. Sweat permeated his blue collared shirt, neatly tucked into his jeans—the politician's everyman ensemble.

Heinrich, a former Albuquerque city councilor turned congressman, answered with a familiar campaign message: His City Council voted to raise the minimum wage while his opponent, former Republican congresswoman Heather Wilson, voted against raising it in Washington—despite repeatedly voting to raise her own pay.

"We became the fourth city in the country to [raise the minimum wage]," Heinrich said. "We were trying to create the momentum so that Washington would do the right thing. She voted six times against raising the minimum wage in Washington, DC. And she voted six times to raise her own pay by close to $30,000. I was looking out for the hard-working constituents of my district. I will do that in the US Senate for the entire state."

Applause immediately rang out. It was neat contrast on the two candidates' records that painted Wilson as self-serving and Heinrich as a public servant.

But in politics, reality is rarely so neat.

In January 2007, Wilson took the floor of the US House, where she had been serving New Mexico's 1st Congressional District for almost a decade—the same district Heinrich now represents.

In 1998, Wilson, now 51, became the first female US Armed Forces veteran to serve in Congress. She has a knack for expressing herself zealously. During a 2004 Congressional hearing, for instance, Wilson apparently shed tears while excoriating a Viacom  Inc. executive for airing Janet Jackson's nipple during the Super Bowl halftime show, saying, "You knew what kind of entertainment you were selling, and you wanted all of us to be abuzz here in this room and on the playground in my kids' school, because it improves your ratings, it improves your market share and it lines your pockets!"

January 2007 marked the beginning of the new Democratic majority's 100-hour plan, a legislative blitz by a party that had regained control of the House for the first time in 12 years.

At issue that day was a bill by California Democrat George Miller that would raise the minimum wage for the first time since Wilson took office.

"I would like to tell you about one of my constituents," Wilson said. "Her name is Mary Padilla, and she runs Roadrunner Transmissions in Albuquerque, New Mexico."

Padilla was apparently worried that Miller's bill, which would raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour, would prevent Roadrunner from being able to pay for its employees' health benefits.

"The toughest thing for a small business person to do is to make the payroll and provide health insurance," Wilson said on the floor.

Wilson spoke in support of a motion that would effectively add a provision allowing employers like Roadrunner to opt out of paying the higher minimum wage if they provided health insurance to their employees.

"One of the biggest problems we face in this country is the uninsured population," Wilson said. "In my state, about one in four people don't have health insurance. This provision would encourage more small and medium-sized businesses to provide health insurance for their employees."

The opt-out motion failed to make it into the final bill, but Wilson nonetheless joined Democrats in voting for it. The bill passed the House, and eventually the minimum-wage increase was put into an Iraq spending bill that May, for which Wilson also voted.

In the end, Wilson had joined her colleagues in passing the first minimum wage hike in a decade.

It was, however, an aberration in Wilson's record. Heinrich is correct in saying that she voted six times against raising the minimum wage—and also that she cast votes that effectively raised her own congressional pay.

It's just one case in which campaign messages don't necessarily reflect political reality.

But as the election nears, the campaign messages are coming faster and more forcefully—and the nation is watching New Mexico's Senate race.

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report, notes that the Senate's Democratic majority is at stake.

Democrats currently hold the chamber by just four seats; with 33 seats in play this election cycle, the balance could easily shift.

Duffy's Washington-based nonpartisan newsletter, which analyzes elections, calls 10 of those races—including New Mexico's—tossups; the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call includes New Mexico's Senate race as one of seven tossups. Other polls show Heinrich with a fragile lead of anywhere from three to seven points, taking into account margin of error.

"If [Republicans] win New Mexico, they definitely have the majority," Duffy says of the Senate, adding later, "I think this is the most underrated competitive race in the country right now."

Republicans already have the majority in the 435-member US House of Representatives, and Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats to take it back, according to the Rothenberg Political Report. Even if President Barack Obama is reelected this year, he could face two Congressional chambers controlled by recalcitrant Republicans, who have already shown that their opposition to Obama's policies is fierce.

In short, depending on how the numbers shake out, the political future of the nation could hinge on New Mexico's Senate race.

Republicans are hoping for a coup d'état.

"My personal support for Heather Wilson is unabashed," New Mexico Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, who threw his endorsement behind Wilson in the primaries after withdrawing his candidacy, tells SFR. On a recent Saturday, he stopped by the GOP's Santa Fe "victory office," one of many the party has established across the state to act as central operations for GOP campaigns. "We can't take control of the US Senate unless we take this seat in New Mexico."

Duffy says support from Gov. Susana Martinez, whose approval ratings rank among the highest in the country, could help Wilson. But Sanchez declined to say what kind of support the governor might lend the Senate candidate.

Democrats, meanwhile, have been preparing for battle.

Moises Ortega, president of the New Mexico Teamsters Local 492, whose members range from bakers to freight drivers, says Heinrich is one of just two candidates he can recall in his 10 years with the Teamsters who earned primary endorsements. (The other was for Eric Griego, the Democratic state senator who lost the June primary race for Heinrich's congressional seat.)

"It's extremely important to us to try and be able to maintain the Senate in worker-friendly hands," Ortega says, adding later, "We did contribute to [Heinrich's] primary campaign, which is something that's very unusual for us."

The Teamsters have given at least $10,000 to Heinrich, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The political action committee supporting Heinrich also received $5,000 from Teamsters.

In the context of modern politics, though, it's a drop in the bucket.

Compared with other Senate races around the country, the approximately $4 million each that Heinrich and Wilson have raised isn't much. (New Mexico's advertising market is relatively cheap.) And they're neck and neck: The latest fundraising reports, filed June 30 with the Federal Election Commission, show that Wilson raised roughly $164,000 more than Heinrich.

But donations to candidates' campaigns are limited—meaning that outside spending groups can have a big impact on voter perceptions. Freed by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision to receive unlimited contributions from corporations and unions, the groups can spend unlimited money on political advertising as long as they're technically independent of a candidate's official campaign.

Outside spending groups, which are responsible for many of the political advertisements flooding New Mexico airwaves, "help set an agenda for the campaign," says Lonna Rae Atkeson, a University of New Mexico political science professor who studies elections.

Already, those groups have left their footprint on this race. They include so-called "dark money" organizations like the US Chamber of Commerce, which doesn't disclose its donors and uses money from corporate membership dues to fund some of its political activity.

Other outside spending groups attempting to influence the race include a coalition of at least six environmental advocacy organizations that have thrown their money behind an early—and negative—advertising onslaught against Wilson. Some of these groups are classified as tax-exempt "social welfare" nonprofits, or 501(c)(4)s, by the Internal Revenue Service, which means that political activity must not be their only function. Together, they've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to discredit Wilson's environmental record.

So far, the only super PAC that has appeared in New Mexico's US Senate race is American Crossroads, a group tied to Republican strategist Karl Rove and backed by millions from Texas billionaires Bob Perry and Harold Simmons. It's supporting Wilson, who once served on the board of a group closely affiliated with another Rove group, Crossroads GPS. Rove appeared at a fundraiser with Wilson in June 2011.

Atkeson says negative political advertising can move voters to be emotional—even angry.

"When you're angry, you want to engage in activity," she says.

Even though many of those ads aren't directly associated with the campaigns—and may even reflect agendas with which the candidates themselves disagree—they can sway an election's outcome.

"It's hard for voters to really separate in their heads the different ads and who's responsible for them," Atkeson says.

The result, according to Brian Sanderoff, the president of Albuquerque-based Research & Polling, Inc., is that "voters start to vote on the lesser of two evils and are not sure what to believe."

But outside advertising isn't the only factor muddying the waters in New Mexico's Senate race. While both Heinrich and Wilson have labored to cast each other as extremists—one of Wilson's ads literally calls Heinrich "too extreme"—neither truly is. Heinrich, for instance, has received endorsements from the National Rifle Association; Wilson has pushed to expand government health care programs.

But in an increasingly polarized campaign climate—and an increasingly polarized Congress—is moderation a lost cause?

Attack ads have painted US Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-NM, as an job-killing extremist, but his record is more nuanced.
Attack ads have painted US Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-NM, as an job-killing extremist, but his record is more nuanced.

Heinrich: Job-Killing Extremist or Energy Advocate?

"Madam Speaker, I rise today to introduce the Clean Energy Promotion Act. This bill will help create thousands of clean energy jobs across America and help end our dependence on foreign oil. Today, some 200 solar energy projects, 25 wind energy projects and 200 wind energy production test sites are on hold because the Bureau of Land Management doesn't have the resources to evaluate their applications."

That was Heinrich, on the floor of the US House on June 3, 2009, introducing one of his first bills.

The bill, supported by the solar and wind industries, would have provided the BLM with up to $5 million per year to process a backlog of applications for renewable energy projects on public lands. The money would come from wind and solar developers.

"Not only will we jumpstart clean energy job creation today," Heinrich said, "we'll also be laying the foundation for America's clean energy prosperity tomorrow."

Six Republicans cosponsored Heinrich's bill, but it never made it to the floor. Heinrich reintroduced it again in June 2011. This April, the BLM said it "strongly supports" the bill's objectives, which have the potential to create thousands of jobs, according to BLM estimates.

Now, however, Heinrich is being attacked for voting against the nation's energy independence and job creation—the very same ideals he said were behind the Clean Energy Promotion Act.

One advertisement, paid for by Wilson's campaign, begins with a screen featuring black text from a December Albuquerque Journal editorial: "Workers and the unemployed be damned."

"That's what the Albuquerque Journal said about environmental extremists blocking the Keystone Pipeline—and blocking jobs," a narrator warns in a deep, ominous voice. "Extremists like Martin Heinrich. Even the leaders of both parties support Keystone to create jobs. Extremists like Heinrich stand in the way, while New Mexico leads the nation in job losses. Martin Heinrich puts his left-wing politics first before creating jobs. That's too extreme for New Mexico."

Third-party attacks reiterate that message. An earlier US Chamber of Commerce ad, one of the first negative third-party ads against Heinrich, also attacked him for voting against the Keystone Pipeline, "which would create thousands of American jobs."

The Canadian pipeline operator TransCanada Corp. wants to build a pipeline system to carry Canada's tar sands oil to the Gulf Coast. In January, Obama rejected TransCanada's application to build the pipeline, and studies note that the job-creation numbers cited by TransCanada and its supporters have been misleading.

A recent study conducted by William Wade, president of Energy & Water Economics, a Tennessee-based economic consulting firm, found that construction of the pipeline could produce about 16,000 jobs for two construction years—lower than Keystone estimates and Wilson campaign literature that claims would create 20,000 jobs. But those jobs are temporary, and the pipeline's proposed route doesn't cross New Mexico, so Heinrich's constituents wouldn't reap even temporary employment benefits from its construction unless they moved out of state.

"We need to be focusing our incentives on things that provide jobs right here in New Mexico," Heinrich tells SFR, saying he supports renewable energy development as a more effective means of achieving energy independence.

The ads painting Heinrich as a left-wing, extremist job-killer are misleading. In Socorro, he pointed out that he and US Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-NM, cosponsored a law that provides tax credits for businesses that hire returning veterans. In 2010, Heinrich voted for the Small Business and Infrastructure Jobs Act, a Democrat-backed bill that would have excluded from taxation certain capital gain income for stock purchased in qualifying small businesses.

But Sanderoff says the ads might be effective in an election where jobs and the economy are foremost among voters' concerns.

"It's a smart strategy for Republicans to win statewide," he says. "They need to get those crossover Democrats."

Environmental groups have targeted former US Rep. Heather Wilson, R-NM, as a pawn of the oil industry despite some of her public-health votes.
Environmental groups have targeted former US Rep. Heather Wilson, R-NM, as a pawn of the oil industry despite some of her public-health votes.

Wilson: Oil Industry Puppet or Reasonable Businesswoman?

On July 14, 2005, Wilson informed her Congressional peers that she was "greatly concerned" about an Environmental Protection Agency internal risk study suggesting that in high concentration, methyl tert-butyl ether, or MTBE, is likely a human carcinogen. MTBE is a gasoline additive that reduces smog, she correctly pointed out.

But there are problems with it.

In the early 1990s, Congress required oil companies to put MTBE, or similar additives like ethanol, in gasoline at higher concentrations to oxygenate the fuel, thereby making it more environmentally friendly. But over the years, concerns arose that MTBE may contaminate drinking water, and energy companies faced lawsuits for water contamination related to MTBE.

Wilson's stance at the time: suing oil companies was no solution for cleaning up MTBE-contaminated water.

"We should spend money on getting the spills cleaned up quickly rather than having a lawsuit-based system where people fight in court for years and the lawyers get a big cut of the pie before any cleanup is done," she said, adding that she would support a provision creating a joint industry-government financed trust fund to cover cleanup costs.

But before that statement, Wilson had voted against a motion to eliminate a provision that shielded oil companies from MTBE lawsuits.

This year, environmental organizations jumped on that vote.

One ad goes straight to the family. A child named Emma slowly walks down a school hallway as a female voice narrates: "Emma knows not to talk to strangers. She knows how to just say no. But she doesn't know about MTBE, or that the toxin may be in her drinking water. Emma doesn't know—but Heather Wilson did, when she voted to let oil companies off the hook and take their money."

"Who's Wilson with?" a female narrator asks as Emma looks directly into the camera after drinking from a water fountain. "Not Emma."

The League of Conservation Voters and Defenders of Wildlife Action Committee, part of the environmental coalition supporting Heinrich, paid for the ad.

Sanderoff says that Heinrich and the third-party groups supporting him are trying to paint Wilson as "too accommodating to special interest groups," as being "someone who's beholden to gas, oil."

Her 2005 statement shows that she certainly doesn't favor poisoning drinking water with MTBE. But one point the otherwise vague ad hits accurately is that Wilson, in contrast with Heinrich, has taken big money from the oil and gas industry: Data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics indicates that in this election cycle, she's accepted $177,000 from oil and gas interests—so far her top private-sector supporter. And her legislative record has been favorable to oil and gas interests: One of the last bills she sponsored, in May of 2008, would have streamlined permitting for construction of gasoline refineries.

Health Care: Wedge Issue or Common Ground?

Health care—especially since the US Supreme Court's vote in June to uphold Obama's sweeping health care reform bill—is a hot-button issue this election cycle, and one that's inextricably tied to the issue of government spending. While each side's ads draw a clear distinction between Heinrich and Wilson, the candidates' records are less polarized.

In 2003, for instance, President George W Bush signed into law one of the largest unfunded health care entitlements to that date.

In supporting the bill, Wilson, in the House that November, said to her colleagues, "We all have a right to be proud of what we are about to accomplish here because we have been elected to make a difference."

The law—the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act—created a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients. Under the Republican-backed plan, seniors would pay small monthly premiums to cover part of the plan's costs. Democrats criticized the plan, noting that it was a bonanza for private insurers, and fought unsuccessfully to add provisions giving the government power to negotiate down prescription prices with private insurers. In 2007, Wilson voted against a bill imposing the negotiating provisions.

There were also warnings about the plan's uncovered costs.

 "In the guise of cost containment for the Medicare program, the Medicare [Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization] Act creates a new definition of Medicare insolvency that may threaten Medicare's existing benefit structure," warned the Center for Medicare Advocacy, Inc., a nonprofit advocacy group. "Congress would only be able to address the crisis by cutting benefits or increasing cost sharing, reducing provider payments, or increasing the payroll tax contributions—a solution that falls more heavily upon lower-income individuals."

In short, Wilson had joined other Republicans in vastly expanding government spending obligations—with the potential to threaten Medicare's very survival.

Years later, the Tea Party would make government spending one of the hottest political issues of the day. Rick Morlen, president of the Albuquerque Tea Party, says his group met with Wilson in the spring.

"Having her talk with us about it, she understands the debt in the past two years…has gotten to the point where it absolutely has to be addressed," he says. "And it has to be addressed more on the spending side than on the taxation side."

But Wilson—who faced criticism from conservatives for backing the expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program in 2007 through tax increases on cigarettes—has also been the target of attack ads nailing her for increasing government spending. The Club for Growth, a conservative group, released ads in 2008 advising voters to "Tell Heather Wilson to stop wasting our money"; earlier this year, her primary opponent, Las Cruces businessman Greg Sowards, accused her of being a big-spending RINO—"Republican in name only."

But this time, Heinrich is the target.

"Tell Martin Heinrich to stop spending and cut the debt," one Crossroads GPS ad urges. "Heather Wilson will stop the reckless government spending," claims another.

Third-party ads have nailed Heinrich for increasing spending by supporting Obama's health care law, even though the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that it will decrease deficits. (Meanwhile, repealing it would increase the federal deficit by more than $100 billion, according to the CBO.)

In Socorro, Heinrich responded to a question about growing entitlements, telling supporters that he was disappointed that the medical inflation rate wasn't addressed during the health care debate. He wants a medical system that rewards quality over volume, he said, which would reduce medical costs and, consequently, the expenses of programs like Medicare.

So perhaps Heinrich isn't the budget-busting extremist the ads say he is. GovTrack.us, the open-government website that tracks congressional voting records, considers Heinrich's ideology slightly left of center.

Wilson, too, has been known to break with her party. She tried to get the Bush White House to release cost estimates on the prescription drug plan—which were higher than the administration initially let on—and supported government programs like SCHIP.

But both candidates have shown that they've voted with their respective caucus the majority of the time—meaning each would likely support partisan priorities rather than consistently breaking with his or her caucus.

After his trip to Socorro, Heinrich made a stop at the Valencia County Democratic headquarters to greet his loyal volunteers, telling them that the Senate was "the backstop of the craziness of the House Tea Party." As such, it's fitting that New Mexico's Senate candidates would possess more nuanced views than some of their congressional counterparts. The real question, then, is the extent to which Heinrich and Wilson will be swayed by partisan ideology, Washington gridlock and the politics of campaigning.

A report from a May 10, 2012 Board of Directors meeting of the NRDC Action Fund sheds light on the strategy behind third-party ads.

The NRDC Action Fund, a nonprofit that’s spent roughly $246,000 in New Mexico’s Senate race so far, is one of several environmental groups behind advertisements and other communications in this race.

The report notes that the environmental groups will band together “to work to elect Martin Heinrich to the US Senate in 2012.” NRDC identified “180,000 persuadable registered voters across the state who can make the difference for Heinrich’s election.”

The group would poll key consistencies that “historically respond well to environmental messages.” Among them: “sportsman, Hispanics, Independent educated women, Independent mothers of young children, seniors, youth, and Native Americans.”

“Our targets are concentrated in and around Albuquerque and in suburban areas around the state,” says the report. “Women voters will be an especially important target for us.”

The NRDC report concluded its New Mexico strategy section this way: “Heinrich’s opponent…will try to hold down the traditional gender gap with suburban women. This is a great opportunity for us because our issues test well with suburban independent women and we can reinforce Wilson’s negatives to maintain Heinrich’s advantage with women.”