Sanchez vs. Wilson for Senate Run in New Mexico?

Earlier this year, when New Mexico’s five-term Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman announced he would not seek reelection in 2012, the early opinion among Land of Enchantment pols and national political reporters (including this one) was that moderate former Rep. Heather Wilson had the Republican nomination wrapped up and was better than even money to put the seat in GOP hands.

But as former Secretary of State James Baker once said, “Overnight is an eternity in politics.”  The same party activists who helped conservative Rep. Steve Pearce defeat then-Rep. Wilson in the ’08 Republican Senate primary have been making it clear they are not ready to just hand over the GOP Senate nod in 2012 to someone they regard as not sufficiently conservative.  Cultural conservatives recall Wilson ‘s pro-abortion position and the Club for Growth has long been critical of her support for Troubled Asset Relief Program funding.

On Friday, signs were strong that conservative Lt. Gov. John Sanchez would also enter the Senate primary with Wilson.  A contractor and former state representative (who won his seat by unseating the then-speaker of the state house), Sanchez won a crowded primary for governor in 2002.  Beaten by Democrat Bill Richardson, Sanchez returned to private business until last year.  He won the GOP nod for lieutenant governor and went on, with gubernatorial running mate Susana Martinez, to triumph in the fall—the first time in the U.S. that voters elected Republicans of Hispanic heritage governor and lieutenant governor.

“And I’m looking seriously at the Senate race,” the 48-year-old Sanchez told HUMAN EVENTS while in Washington for a meeting of the nation’s lieutenant governors.  Without mentioning Wilson (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 76%) directly, Sanchez did point out differences between himself and the moderate hopeful that would be important in a contested primary:  He is strongly pro-life (the then-state Rep. Sanchez was a leader behind parental notification legislation) and has taken the lead on conservative issues, notably right-to-work measures in his state.

“The same issues that Gov. Martinez and I ran on last year will work for Republicans in the future,” he said.  “First, we said we wouldn’t raise a dime of taxes, and we kept that promise.  We said we would repeal the law that permits illegal immigrants to have driver’s licenses—we haven’t done it, but we’ll keep trying.  And we said we would secure the borders.”

Does a hard-line manifesto on immigration alienate Hispanic voters?  Although there is a case for this, Sanchez believes this is changing “among second-generation Hispanics, people who are in business and must see the economic damage caused by illegal immigration.”  He noted that he and Martinez minced no words on this issue and won the statehouse (the two ran as a team) by garnering nearly 40% of the Hispanic vote.

Sanchez’s political team pointed out that Wilson, in her one contested primary, was defeated.  In addition, they noted, Republicans with a statewide loss, such as Sanchez’s for governor in ’02, have a tendency to bounce back.  Pete Domenici, for example, lost a close race for governor in 1970 but came back to win the Senate seat two years later.  The late Joe Skeen lost races for lieutenant governor in 1970 and governor in ’74 and ’78 and then won a U.S. House seat.

At this point, the likeliest Democratic candidate appears to be two-term Rep. Martin Heinrich.  As for the chances that John Sanchez will seek the GOP nod, sources close to him said they were “very, very high at this time.”