ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Four years ago, Heather Wilson gave up her House seat from New Mexico to make a run for a rare opening in the Senate. She lost in a bare-knuckled Republican primary. This year she has the luxury of sitting back as the Democratic successor to her House seat takes a similar gamble.
The stakes are equally high.
In 2008, Democrat Tom Udall won the Senate seat of Wilson's mentor, Pete Domenici, a Republican power in Washington for three decades. Democrats found themselves holding both of the state's Senate seats for the first time in nearly 40 years.
With Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman retiring after 30 years, the GOP is targeting New Mexico in its drive to capture control of the Senate and swing the battleground state back to Republicans in the presidential election.
Wilson, 51, had been bracing for another bruising primary fight, this time over conservative credentials, with Lt. Gov. John Sanchez. But Sanchez dropped his bid a few months ago and endorsed Wilson, saying a divisive June 5 primary would hurt the party's chances come November.
She still has one opponent, Las Cruces businessman and twice-losing congressional candidate Greg Sowards, but she is expected to win the primary easily. If she does, Wilson will face one of two young Democrats in November: Rep. Martin Heinrich, 40, who two years ago won her congressional seat representing Albuquerque, or state Auditor Hector Balderas, 38.
Balderas is considered the underdog. But unlike Wilson in her previous Senate primary, Balderas and Heinrich have been playing nice. Both are viewed as rising stars in the party, and Balderas is considered a potentially strong challenger to Republican Gov. Susana Martinez in two years if he stays in good graces with party leaders.
Heinrich has raised $2.5 million, 2-1/2 times what Balderas has raised, according to filings through the end of March with the Federal Election Commission.
Still, in a state that is 46 percent Hispanic, no one is counting Balderas out, despite Heinrich's status as a sitting congressman, his money-raising edge and a long list of endorsements from unions, environmental groups and other traditional Democratic backers.
"Heinrich has more name recognition and more money, but typically Spanish surnames on Election Day do a little better than expected in a Democratic primary," said Brian Sanderoff, an Albuquerque pollster. "Hector Balderas should not be taken for granted by any means."
State Democratic Chairman Javier Gonzales said whoever wins his party's primary will "be strong enough to beat Heather."
The primaries have been quiet. If it weren't for a few introductory television and radio ads by Heinrich, Balderas and Wilson, one might not even know an election was just a couple of weeks away.
Heinrich and Balderas both talk about the need to balance the budget while preserving programs like Social Security and Medicare. Both talk about the need to create jobs. And both speak highly of each other.
Heinrich, an engineer, declines to engage when asked about how he differentiates himself from Balderas, saying simply that he is running a campaign "that is based solely on my qualifications and what we have been able to accomplish over the last 3-1/2 years."
Among his proudest achievements since winning Wilson's House seat are saving 1,000 National Guard jobs at Kirtland Air Force Base and fighting for continued support for the Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories,
The question of differences, however, goes to the heart of Balderas' campaign message.
"I'm part of the struggle," says the lawyer who grew up in public housing and on food stamps in the northern New Mexico town of Wagon Mound, one of the state's smallest and poorest towns. "I believe I have lived the issues New Mexicans are facing today, whether its student loans, whether it's being on food stamps or living in public housing. I've lived these issues and am sharing those experiences. I'm part of those struggles. I believe that is the difference that I have over many leaders in Washington."
Heinrich wasn't poor as a child, but he comes from a working-class family, roots he emphasized in his first Spanish-language radio ad. He was raised in Missouri, his father a utility company lineman and his mother a factory worker.
Balderas also positions himself as a reformer, touting his experience rooting out fraud in state and local government.
Wilson had raised $2.4 million through March and lined up broad support among the party's establishment after being pummeled in 2008 as too moderate on economic issues. Former GOP national committeeman Mickey Barnett, an Albuquerque lawyer, says she has mended fences with fiscal conservatives and he expects her to win the primary "going away."
"I think she now understands what the issues of limited government really are talking about," said Barnett. "I think you'll see her being a much more conservative senator than she was a congressman."
Wilson has attacked Heinrich for months on his "free-spending ways." She criticized his absence during a vote to raise the debt limit. And she has leveled blistering attacks on the state's Democratic congressional delegation for failing to block budget cuts at Los Alamos, an economy driver in northern New Mexico.
An Air Force Academy graduate and Rhodes scholar, Wilson won a special election in 1998 to replace the late GOP Rep. Steve Schiff. She developed a reputation as a tough campaigner by repeatedly winning re-election in a swing district targeted by national Democrats.
She said the priority must be to "get our financial house in order," but she acknowledges a pragmatic approach will be needed to solve politically thorny financial problems confronting Medicare and Social Security.
"I will fight passionately for what I believe," Wilson said, "but I also am willing to seek bipartisan compromise if it means getting things done for New Mexico."