Gizzi on Politics: May 26-30

Can He Pearce Udall in November?

With days to go before the New Mexico primary, it certainly looks as if Republicans will nominate the more conservative of the two U.S. representatives vying for the seat of retiring Sen. Pete Domenici (R.-N.M.). But while conservatives in the Land of Enchantment and in Washington might well pop open the champagne corks, the big question remains whether a win by Rep. Steve Pearce (lifetime ACU rating: 94%) June 3 can be turned into a victory in the fall over the certain Democratic nominee, Rep. Tom Udall. As Pearce and more moderate Rep. Heather Wilson (lifetime ACU rating: 80%) head toward the finish line in a race that has grown steadily more rancorous, a just-completed KOB-TV (Albuquerque) poll showed Udall, son of former Secretary of the Interior (1960-68) Stewart Udall, handily defeating Pearce (60%-to-36%) and Wilson (61% to 35%).

The same poll showed that Pearce has pulled ahead of rival Wilson by 49% to 46% among likely Republican voters. This represented a dramatic 12-percentage-point gain in the poll over the past six months. In good part, this surge has to do with the fact that state and national conservatives have been mobilizing behind Pearce, a three-term lawmaker and Vietnam veteran. Eagle Forum and numerous pro-life groups have weighed in strongly for the more conservative hopeful, and the conservative Club for Growth has launched a series of television spot ads underscoring the difference between Pearce and Wilson on the $35 billion expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) enacted by Congress and vetoed by President Bush. (Pearce was opposed to SCHIP expansion. Wilson not only supported it, but was a ringleader among moderate GOPers in the House in the unsuccessful effort to overturn the Bush veto.)

A U.S. Air Force Academy graduate and onetime National Security Council staffer under the elder Bush, Wilson has compiled a voting record over ten years in the House that has, says the Almanac of American Politics, “become more moderate and she has been one of its reliable—although not always predictable—centrists.”

The same KOB survey showing Pearce’s surge, also found that Wilson holds a lead of about 25 percentage points in Bernallillo County (Albuquerque), which is in her 1st District and casts about 40% of the Republican primary vote. However, the poll showed that Pearce leads by an off-setting 22 percentage points in the rest of the state.

The Iglesias Affair

There is another development working on Pearce’s behalf in the closing days of the campaign: Recently, former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias appeared on KOB-TV to talk about his new book In Justice, in which he discusses his removal from his federal law enforcement position that led to the massive national media coverage of the Bush Administration’s dismissal of seven other Bush-appointed U.S. attorneys. Iglesias has long charged that he got a call from Sen. Domenici to “pressure” him to speed up indictments in a corruption probe that included a former Democratic state senator and that Wilson also called him about the corruption investigation.

One of the brightest GOP stars in New Mexico, U.S. Naval reserve officer Iglesias had lost a tight (51% to 49%) race for state attorney general in 1998. His charges about alleged interference in an ongoing case and the resulting media criticism of Domenici was probably a key factor in the senator’s deciding to call it quits after 36 years. Although Wilson is considered Domenici’s protégé and closest political associate, he has so far refused to endorse her in the contest with Pearce—very possibly because it would resurrect press discussion of their dealings with Iglesias.

Now Iglesias himself has done that, which cannot help Wilson’s chances.

Post Fossella

Following the spectacular fall of Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer because of the personal scandal surrounding him, political discussion in New York in the last few weeks shifted to talk about conservative Republican Rep. Vito Fossella, his arrest for drunken driving, and the subsequent revelation that the married father of three has had a child out of wedlock.
Just three days after he started making campaign appearances, insisting he was a candidate for re-election, the 43-year-old Fossella (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 86%) announced on May 20 that he would not seek re-election after all. That announcement brought huge sighs of relief from Republicans in the 13th District (Staten Island-Brooklyn) and in Washington. “Vito made the right decision for himself, his wife, and his children,” Mike Long, New York State Conservative Party chairman, told me hours after Fossella’s statement (and shortly after talking to the congressman himself).
“Others who have his problem should follow his example,” said Long, whose party holds Row D on the Empire State ballot and has always given its endorsement to Fossella in his House races. Long predicted that party leaders would soon begin holding meetings to discuss possible successors. He also said he felt that the district, which has been held by three Republican congressmen since 1980, would remain Republican if the GOP and the Conservatives united behind a single candidate.

Even before Fossella’s announcement, speculation swirled around Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan as a possible candidate. The New York Times reported that House Republican Leader John Boehner had called Donovan over the weekend when Fossella was still sounding like a candidate to discuss his prospective bid for the seat. Another Republican possibility is former State Assemblyman Matt Irones.

Two other possible contenders who get high marks from both Republicans and Conservatives are businessmen Tim Corcoran and Paul Atanasio. Both are successful businessmen who have the contacts necessary to wage well-funded campaigns. Atanasio, in particular, is well thought of by the Conservative Party. A registered Conservative himself, the Vietnam veteran and Wall Street executive waged a nearly successful race for Congress in 1980 against a Democratic incumbent in the district that was eventually merged with the 13th. Although he has not sought office since, Atanasio has remained active in politics and is a regular participant in Conservative Party conclaves.

When Fossella’s personal troubles began to unfold, Democrats had high hopes of picking up the lone GOP-held U.S. House district in New York City. 2006 Democratic nominee Steve Harrison has signaled he wants to run again and City Councilmen Dominic Recchia (Brooklyn) and Mike McMahon (Staten Island) are both exploring a bid. But the signs are strong that, with Fossella’s leaving, Democratic chances have dimmed in a district in which George W. Bush won 55% of the vote in ’04.

Primary Colors

There were a few key U.S. House primaries in Oregon and Kentucky, where Democratic presidential primaries made headlines last week.

Oregon’s 5th District (Salem), where Democratic Rep. Darlene Hooley, is retiring after 12 years, is one of a handful of Democratic-held House districts in which Republicans could make a net gain this fall. Last week, Republicans nominated businessman Mike Erickson over Kevin Mannix, a former state legislator who has waged strong-but-losing bids for governor and state attorney general. Erickson drew 43% of the vote against Hooley two years ago. The stalwart conservative Erickson is now considered at least even money against the arch-liberal Democratic nominee, State Sen. Kurt Schrader.

In Kentucky, there are two competitive U.S. House races. Former Rep. (1996-2006) Anne Northup (lifetime ACU rating: 86%) is in a rematch with liberal Democrat John Yarmuth, who unseated her in the 3rd District (Louisville) two years ago.

In 1994, Ron Lewis became the first Republican House member from the 2nd District in more than a half-century in a special election win that previewed the Republican takeover of Congress that fall.

Now Lewis is retiring and conservative State Sen. Brett Guthrie wrapped up the GOP nod without a fight.

Democrats have a strong nominee in State Sen David Boswell, who defeated Daviess County Judge (County Executive) Reid Haire.