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Monday, July 16, 2007

NM-Sen: Waiting for the Dominos to Fall

Two New Mexico institutions - Sen. Pete Domenici and Gov. Bill Richardson - dominate state politics. The two heavyweights' decisions, successes and stumbles continue to send ripples through the state's political structure. Will the Senator recover from his self-inflicted wounds? Or will he decide another campaign just isn't in him? Will the governor suceed in his quest for the White House? Or will he turn his attention to the Senate seat? These questions are likely to linger for many more months, influencing other NM politicians 2008 strategies.

Sen. Pete Domenici was long viewed as a political force of nature who could retain his Senate seat for as long as he desired. That was before his role in USAGate become known. The first half of this year, "Pajama Pete" watched his sky-high approval ratings plummet.

No longer was the focus on Domenici's possible retirement - now analysts were openly wondering whether the 74-year-old Senator could succesfully defend the seat in 2008. The race went from a "long shot" Dem opportunity to a "possible" pick-up in a matter of months. The state's politicos waited to see Domenici's plans.

The political equilibrium in the state was further disrupted by the fact Domenici's presumed Senate successor, Rep. Heather Wilson, is also embroiled in the firing of US Attorney David Iglesias. Many interpreted his increased fundraising efforts during the first quarter as a signal he was gearing up for a reelection campaign.

This conclusion was reinforced by two high-profile policy flip-flops. On immigration, Domenici responded to calls from the GOP base opposing "amnesty" and voted against cloture only days after supporting the reform legislation. The second issue garnered national headlines. His denunciation of the Bush Iraq policy was viewed by many as a confirmation he was running. Both decisions seem to be politically motivated. It remains to be seen whether his "re-election two-step" the right foot slide to placate the GOP base combined with the left foot shuffle to the moderate middle will be successful - or could cause Pajama Pete to fall flat on his face.

But, even with many national and state observers viewing Domenici as vulnerable, the Democrats are still searching to entice a top-tier challenger into the race. Thus far, two Dems (environmental activist Jim Hannan and real estate developer Don Wiviott) have thrown their hats in the ring. Two better known potential candidates, former AG Patricia Madrid and Rep. Tom Udall, remain on the sidelines. Some local observers speculate the Democrats' hesitancy is because they anticipate Gov. Bill Richardson may jump into the race if his quest for the presidency comes up short.

Will more damaging information emerge in the USAGate firings wounding Domenici further? Will Richardson's presidential campaign flounder before 2008? It may me many months before the answers to these questions are known. In the meantime, New Mexico politics exists in a state of suspended animation, waiting to see which way the dominos fall.

NM-Sen racetracker wiki.

Cross-posted at An Enduring Majority.

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