On a recent weekday afternoon, the 83-year-old grandmother has just finished listening to her Bible Stick, a newfangled MP3 player pre-loaded with the New Testament, when she begins professing her doubt.
"I am undecided,"? the New Mexico transplant confesses with a twang.
Not about the hereafter, but about the here and now.
In the contest to succeed US Sen. Pete Domenici "St. Pete to the party faithful" Hughes has been thrown into a genuine Texas twit.
Heather Wilson or Steve Pearce?
"When I get right to it, I think it's going to come down to who's more conservative,"? she explains. Ostensibly that means Hughes supports Pearce, the self-made millionaire and conservative Hobbs oilman who represents southern New Mexico in the US House of Representatives.
"He's a Christian man. He's a man of prayer,"? she says approvingly.
But not so fast. Hughes also likes Wilson, the Rhodes Scholar and middle-of-the-road Air Force vet who represents Albuquerque and Torrence County in the US House of Representatives.
"I am impressed by her record and her background,"? Hughes opines. She's also a fan of Wilson's almost miraculous ability to notch win after win after win in moderate Albuquerque, convincing at least a majority of voters to keep sending her back to Washington, DC, every couple years.
Then again, Hughes, the former owner of Albuquerque's Bonanza Sirloin Pit, is partly responsible since she's worked the phones for Wilson's campaigns.
She also was a fan of Wilson's moderate Republican predecessor, US Rep. Steve Schiff. She volunteered on his campaigns, as well. "He was Jewish but he had integrity,"? she says cheerfully.
Hughes is even open to wildcard ex-state Sen. Tom Benavides - a Republican convert with the zeal of the converted - who says he's running, although he's unlikely to secure a place on the ballot.
"I know Tom. I've met him. I think he's a good man,"? Hughes says, although she politely adds that she'd need to learn more about the man probably best known for his black eye patch before she'd really consider voting for him.
So what to do?
"God is sovereign,"? she says simply. "He's gonna show me."?
Hughes and hundreds of fellow party activists around the state are just beginning the process of picking their party's '08 Senate nominee. From Feb. 14-23, GOP county conventions all across the state will pick delegates to send to the March 15 state pre-primary nominating convention, the first skirmish of what is expected to be a money-soaked, hard-fought Senate primary between heavyweights Wilson and Pearce.
The main event will feature two deadly serious, seasoned members of Congress seeking to win voter-approved promotion to the world's most exclusive club. Total membership: 100.
On one level, this election is a struggle for the soul of the New Mexico's Republican Party in a post-Domenici religion.
But Wilson vs. Pearce also reflects the same struggle for the future of the party that is playing out nationally among the GOP's presidential candidates: What's more important"electability or ideology"and what should the Republican Party stand for?
"The New Mexico Senate race starts as one of the top five Senate races in the country,"? Nathan Gonzalez, political editor of the Washington, DC-based Rothenberg Political Report, explains. Insiders see an open US Senate seat completely up for grabs. "And this primary,"? he adds, "is going to be a classic conservative vs. moderate Republican primary."?
Whoever wins the primary will likely face US Rep. Tom Udall, a popular Santa Fe Democrat, come November. Early polls show him beating Wilson or Pearce handily.
It's early, but Republican hopes of holding the seat are already being tested.
If Wilson vs. Pearce gets ugly, prayer might not be enough.
In many ways, this story began on Oct. 4 when Domenici, 75, New Mexico's six-term senior senator, announced that an incurable brain disease would keep him from running again.
As if on cue, the next day Wilson, 47, officially announced her intention to run for the seat.
It was a fitting move. Domenici almost single-handedly put Wilson in Congress 10 years ago. In 1998, a special election was called following Schiff's death, and Domenici threw his considerable political weight behind Wilson, then the obscure secretary of the state Children, Youth and Families Department. Before that, she had been a finalist for the open superintendent position with Albuquerque Public Schools, but didn't get the nod. Domenici took the unprecedented step of endorsing her before the Republican primary.
"He sponsored her. I didn't know who she was hardly when he announced he was gonna put her in Congress,"? former Gov. Dave Cargo, an avowed moderate Republican, recalls.
In each of the next five elections, Wilson faced well-known, well-funded Democrats and beat them all. Over the same period of time, she developed a record as a hawk on military matters, a cultural conservative and a small-government, low-tax devotee. Like presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee John McCain, Wilson has occasionally"and notably"steered away from party orthodoxy. Her enthusiastic embrace of a $35 billion expansion for children's health care last year is a recent example that already looms large in the current campaign. Even so, she hasn't faced a serious Republican challenger since 1998.
This year is different.
Wilson's campaign repeatedly denied SFR's request for an interview with Wilson. But a visit to her beehive of a campaign headquarters, tucked into a nondescript Albuquerque strip mall and flanked by a Coast Guard recruiting office on one side and Laff's Comedy Club on the other, reveals youngish volunteers and staffers buzzing in and out of the front door.
The yellow exterior sign high above the front door is outdated: "Re-elect Heather Wilson, Congress,"? it reads. Make no mistake: Wilson, after five ***image5***terms in the House, is gunning hard for the Senate. In a Jan. 29 letter the campaign sent out to gin up support for the March convention, Wilson re-brands herself a "common sense conservative"? and draws attention to her track record of dispatching well-regarded Democratic challengers. In 2006, when Republicans lost a whopping 32 seats in the US House of Representatives, Wilson withstood a stiff challenge from then-Attorney General Patricia Madrid, winning by a razor-thin margin of 875 votes.
"We know how to win where winning isn't easy,"? Wilson writes.
That's music to the ears of Alamogordo City Commissioner Steve Brockett. "Wilson has shown time and time again her resiliency,"? Brockett says. "I just feel she will be the stronger general election candidate."? At the same time, Brockett, owner of the Alamogordo's Waffle and Pancake Shoppe, also admires Wilson's moderation. A self-described moderate Republican, Brockett was tapped to lead Wilson's campaign efforts in Otero County, smack dab in the heart of Pearce country. It's the same***image6*** place where, in 2002, he was the leader of Republicans for Richardson. "And we got huge Republican support,"? he crows, noting that Gov. Bill Richardson won conservative Otero County.
While he volunteers that he's voted for Pearce "every time"? he has run for his House seat, Brockett thinks Wilson is a better fit this time. "I think now we need someone who can work with the other party to get things done,"? he says. "Wilson can be flexible, she can be adaptable. I believe you need to be those two things."?
US Rep. Steve Pearce may not be flexible or adaptable, but many see him better positioned to win the nomination.
A successful businessman, Vietnam vet and one-time 4-H star, Pearce also has a golden political rÃ©sumÃ©. He won a seat representing Hobbs in the New Mexico House of Representatives in 1996, and was re-elected in 1998, rising almost instantly in the GOP's legislative leadership.
In 2000, he set his sights much higher; he competed in the Republican primary to face off with New Mexico's Democratic US Sen. Jeff Bingaman, but finished a distant second in the Republican primary, losing to the ultra-conservative former Congressman Bill Redmond.
In 2002, he won a contested primary and general election to represent the 2nd Congressional District"which includes much of the southern half of the state.
This year, Pearce has the conservative creds and the campaign is working to solidify that image with its first TV ad, released on Jan. 15. It's a warm and fuzzy ode to "New Mexico conservative values,"? that lists lower taxes, stronger borders and fighting terrorism as the campaign's major themes.
"Pearce has come across as more the staunch conservative,"? Rod Montoya, chairman of the San Juan County Republican Party, observes.
Pearce was at Santa Fe's La Fonda Hotel on Jan. 30 for a fund-raiser that netted the three-term congressman more than $100,000 in campaign contributions. The morning after, at 7 am, Pearce sits down with SFR at the Holiday Inn on Cerrillos Road, wide awake, his white shirt perfectly pressed, and proves his conservative bona fides.
On energy: "I've always supported drilling where we can,"? Pearce, former owner of the oil field rental equipment firm Lea Fishing Tools, says enthusiastically. Specifically regarding the push to drill for oil in the Galisteo Basin, a local flashpoint in Santa Fe County, Pearce doesn't sympathize with anti-drilling locals.
"I will tell you that the whole idea that, "˜Yeah we want energy, but I don't want to produce it in my backyard,' is one of the most serious problems ***image7***we have today. We continue to limit our own access to our own oil and gas and that causes us to buy more from [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez. Do we want to support Hugo Chavez? Do we want to support the Middle East regimes that want to annihilate us?"?
On health care: "I think the idea of socialized medicine, government medicine, is a fallacy."?
As for the bulk of the 400,000 uninsured New Mexicans, Pearce doesn't see fit to offer them any government assistance. "At some point we have a personal responsibility,"? he says.
On the push for statewide domestic partnership benefits, Pearce, a married 60-year-old family man, is adamantly opposed.
"The pressure for same-sex marriage, the pressure for multiple partners,
polymorphism, that's a pressure that is actually going on legally right now,"? he says. "And then you got pressure from people saying, "˜I got a legitimate right to my pedophilia.'"?
"There will be no legal impediment to stop anything based on emotion once you get started, even pedophilia,"? Pearce theorizes.
For his part, Pearce doesn't think his positions undercut his appeal. "I'm very conservative, but I'm also not very limited,"? he says. And sometimes he wins votes on his clarity alone. "People say, "˜I don't agree with you, but I know where you stand and I'm gonna vote for you.'"?
Pearce's conservative ideology isn't news to former Gov. Cargo. He knows him, says he likes him and was embroiled in a mini-controversy over the introduction he gave Pearce when Pearce announced his Senate bid; some saw it as a tacit endorsement. It wasn't, Cargo says, although he is taken by the quirk he sees in the Pearce and Wilson race.
"It's funny,"? Cargo says. "They've got reversed roles. In the primary, Pearce has the advantage. In the general, Heather has the advantage."?
Wilson and Pearce's various pros and cons as candidates for both the primary and general elections are connected to the nuances of the state's Republican voters.
Some see Wilson as the urban Albuquerque candidate, Pearce as the rural Hobbs candidate. Doug Turner, president of the public relations firm DW Turner, deems Wilson's city slicker image "a challenge"? to overcome, given many rural New Mexicans believe too much power and resources revolve around Albuquerque.
Then there are the candidates' ages. In a late-November Roswell Record article, Wilson suggested Pearce's age (60) is an issue because he'll be Domenici's age (75) by the time he accumulates any seniority in the Senate.
But perhaps the most important factor is the gap between Wilson and Pearce on social issues.
According to the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), Wilson scores at 42 percent on its most recent report card, while Pearce scores a perfect 100 percent.
"I'm the only strong pro-life candidate in the race,"? Pearce says.
Included in that NRLC rating are Wilson's votes for federally supported stem cell research. Earlier this month, Wilson defended those votes in an interview with the Farmington Daily Times: "I just thought it was the right thing to do,"? the paper quotes her as saying.
Pearce draws attention to Wilson's vote last year to expand, by $35 billion, the state's Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). The same bill included a 69 cent tax hike on every pack of cigarettes as a means to finance the expansion. Pearce calls the vote "a very big point of departure for us."? Joining like-minded Democrats like Udall, Wilson even rallied fellow moderate Republicans in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to override President Bush's veto of the SCHIP expansion. For this moderate sin, she was labeled a "tax-and-spend Republican"? in a guest commentary for National Review Online last October written by Paul Gessing, president of the conservative Rio Grande Foundation. "Outside of a few Northeast Republicans,"? Gessing writes, "Wilson is the most liberal Republican in the House of Representatives."?
The Club for Growth, an organization that endorses Republican candidates who support limited government and lower taxes, supports ***image9***Pearce over Wilson and, on the same day Wilson announced she was running for Senate, issued a statement blasting her as "an economic liberal walking in Republican shoes."?
Both candidates, however, have shown ability to raise money.
Wilson and Pearce have each raised approximately $3 million for their campaigns, according to the candidates' latest campaign finance reports filed on Dec. 31. But when it comes to money, Pearce holds one advantage: his own checkbook. According to Pearce's personal finance disclosure in 2005, posted on opensecrets.org, his personal net worth is estimated at between $7 and nearly $30 million. He could tap into his personal fortune to boost his campaign any time he sees fit.
"It's only a factor if he's willing to spend it,"? Turner, who managed former Republican Gov. Gary Johnson's successful campaigns for governor, says. Johnson also tapped into his own checkbook. "It doesn't necessarily guarantee a victory,"? Turner adds, "but it certainly makes life easier. Fund-raising is a lot of work."?
Campaigning is a lot of work too. Both Wilson and Pearce will face their first major contest soon.
"Yes, I'd like to win big,"? Pearce says, referring to the Republican Party of New Mexico's March 15 pre-primary nominating convention. "But I'm out working it,"? he adds confidently.
The convention is likely to be a GOP beauty pageant, with both Wilson and Pearce expected to easily win more than 20 percent of the delegate vote, automatically securing a place on the June 3 primary ballot.
GOP state Chairman Allen Weh predicts the convention "will send a message to the broad uninvolved Republicans"? about which candidate the party's most dedicated activists prefer.
But winning the convention doesn't guarantee a primary win. "It's not essential you come out the victor,"? Turner says, noting that his former boss, former Gov. Johnson, finished third in the 1994 nominating convention, but went on to win both the primary and general elections. "But it helps,"? he adds. "It gives you a bump."?***image11***
Rod Montoya will be running his county convention in San Juan County, where delegates to the state election will be elected. Candidates typically gear up to turn their supporters out for the county conventions. But Montoya doesn't think such efforts will pan out. "There's really no way to stack the deck,"? he says. "All you can really do is sell them on yourself."?
Montoya thinks San Juan County will be "the deciding factor"? in the race between Wilson and Pearce. After all, a quarter of all Republicans in the 3rd Congressional District reside in that one county, and it's the 3rd Congressional District that promises to be the battleground since Wilson and Pearce's own districts split up the rest of the state. Montoya acknowledges that Pearce has "a slight edge"? in energy-rich San Juan County, given his oilman roots.
Both candidates are expected to infiltrate the other's turf. "That is what makes it so interesting,"? Turner says. "They both have to make an effort to invade each other's natural territory."?
Cargo suggests Wilson might be able to pick off voters down south in Carlsbad. "The Republicans down there are very moderate and you have lots of unions down there and Hispanics,"? Turner says. She may need them, especially if she isn't able to do as well up north.
Last month on the northern front, Wilson was confronted by a bad omen. A press release issued by her campaign touted successful "listening tour"? events in Roy and Mora. But the tour wasn't a complete success. A ***image12***headline in the Santa Fe New Mexican the day after Wilson's Jan. 8 event probably wasn't well received by camp Wilson: "Four Attend Wilson Visit to S.F."?
Nonetheless, Brian Sanderoff, president of Albuquerque-based Research and Polling Inc., sees Wilson as the woman to beat.
"Heather Wilson has more name recognition,"? Sanderoff says. That's because the Albuquerque media market covers nearly all of the state (except Las Cruces) and that's where Wilson's campaigns have played out every couple of years, he explains.
Montoya is neutral when it comes to this race, but he doesn't agree Wilson has the edge because she's better known. Years of publicity and campaign advertising cut both ways. "Whereas Pearce is maybe less well known, he also has a little less baggage,"? he says.
Some of Wilson's baggage includes her now-infamous phone call to New Mexico's former US Attorney, David Iglesias.
Iglesias testified before the House Ethics Committee last August as part of a preliminary investigation of the call Wilson placed to him inquiring about a public corruption case that targeted prominent Democrats.
"She was snooping around, she wanted me to give her privileged and confidential information that she had no business knowing,"? Iglesias says of Wilson. "She's clearly intelligent, she's been in office a number of years, she knows what honor means. I think she made a terrible choice and I think there needs to be consequences."?
Wilson has previously defended her call to Iglesias as "entirely appropriate."?
Iglesias believes Wilson's role in Attorneygate will come back to haunt her on the campaign trail.
"Part of Steve Pearce's stump speech is his three reasons why Heather Wilson is unelectable,"? Iglesias says. "And one of the reasons is her phone call to me."?***image13***
Whichever candidate prevails, some believe the Republican Party could be headed for an historic meltdown. Both Wilson and Pearce are giving up their seats in the House for a shot at the Senate, and there are no guarantees the GOP can hold onto those House seats. Nor are there any guarantees either Wilson or Pearce will prevail in the general election.
That's why many Republicans hoped to avoid this primary all together.
"It's horrible for the party,"? Cargo argues. "It's not healthy to have a bloodletting and that's what we've got, against an extremely strong Democrat,"? he adds. "It doesn't make any sense."?
In fact, Chairman Weh acknowledges he tried to secure an agreement for only one candidate to run. "But obviously my efforts did not succeed,"? he says.
Historically, Republicans have won numerous statewide elections in New Mexico, despite the fact that their party only claims 34 percent of the state's registered voters. Sanderoff points to Domenici's multiple wins, as well as those of former Govs. Garrey Carruthers and Johnson. "But all of those fellows ran as independent-minded candidates,"? he says. "They didn't come across as ideological."?
***image14***According to the public polling so far, the margin between Wilson and Pearce is tight. Blogger Joe Monahan cites a Jan. 13 state GOP-commissioned poll that shows Pearce leading Wilson by 5 percent, 38 to 33 percent, with lots of undecided voters.
The poll was taken just before Pearce began running his "New Mexico conservative values"? ad.
Iglesias, a Republican who ran and lost a race for attorney general in 1998, points out that while the moderate vs. conservative battle in the state Republican Party isn't new, it's hurting the party.
"There needs to be a clearing of the house and I suspect after this election cycle, you're going to see a compete turnover of the state party leadership,"? he says.
And based on what is happening nationally, Turner questions whether it's "the year for conservatives in the Republican Party right now. Seems to me, if the national elections are any indicator, that Republicans are looking for candidates who can win and certainly there seems to be a lot more appeal for candidates who can attract the center and independent voters."?
Either way, the Wilson/Pearce battle will be decided in June. The victor will be rewarded with a face-off against a well-rested Tom Udall. As of press time, the professional political prognosticators already give the Democrats the edge in that race. Earlier this month, Congressional***image15*** Quarterly moved Udall's bid for the soon-to-be-vacated seat from a designation of "no clear favorite"? to "leans Democratic."? A late January poll commissioned by New Mexico State University indicates Udall is in a commanding position, leading Peace by 22 percentage points, and Wilson by 28 points. Not only that, Udall began 2008 with $1.7 million in his campaign account, having already raised $2.3 million total.
"Udall benefits from the Republican primary because it gives him a few extra months to raise and save money,"? Gonzalez of the Rothenberg Political Report says. "But June is still a fairly early primary and I think the Republicans will still have an opportunity to rally and regroup and focus on Udall."?
But will they seize the opportunity? Or will they lose everything? Doug Turner admits he has no idea.
"But,"? he predicts, "you're going to have a lively, lively debate."?
Tom Benavides adds color to a black-and-white race.
Tom Benavides shuffles his feet down the halls of the Roundhouse. It's the opening day of the Legislature and his old office, Room 217, is just around the corner. Out of breath, his forehead sweaty, Benavides stops off in the capitol rotunda for an impromptu interview. A few minutes later, he amicably tells the story behind his black eye patch.
"I got hurt playing football in the '50s,"? he explains. "The cleat pressed the eye and broke the back of the eye."?
He casually peals the patch away and proves, with cringe-worthy certainty, that it's no mere prop: A sunken, shriveled wrinkle is all that remains where his left eyeball used to be.
A week later, the 69-year-old native of Albuquerque's South Valley formally announces he also plans to jump into New Mexico's Republican US Senate primary. But he subsequently misses the Feb. 12 filing deadline and, as a result, may not even qualify to compete at the March 15 state convention. Benavides says he was short 40 petition signatures, is asking for an extension and may even seek legal counsel if necessary.
In or out, this is "a two-person race,"? Allen Weh, chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, says. "Tom's a nice guy, but he's just entertaining himself."?
The former four-term Democratic state senator was actually the Democratic nominee against Domenici in 1990; he was routed, barely winning 27 percent of the vote. He's come up short many times before. Over the years, voters have denied Benavides the office of governor, lieutenant governor, state auditor, as well as a bid to reclaim his old state Senate seat. The man clearly enjoys running for office. "Lincoln ran a lot too,"? he spins.
In his literature and on his Web site, Benavides also lays claim to conservative voters. He says he's a pro-life lobbyist, he's for eliminating the IRS and he not only favors a border fence, he wants it erected with prison labor.
"Most New Mexicans are conservative, God-fearing people. And the Republicans have been going that way. The Democrats and their platform have been the opposite,"? Benavides explains as his phone rings and he takes the call on his Bluetooth ear piece.
Benavides later brags he's a direct descendant of El Cid, a genealogical factoid he says he can prove. He practically invokes the 11th century Spanish warrior's fighting spirit when explaining his stirring, but vague, motivation for running: "As our Founding Fathers stated from day one, this government is for the people and they will even raise arms if they're not doing the people's work! That's why I'm running for US Senate."?