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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 03/ 8/2011

Heather Wilson's primary prospects

By Aaron Blake

Former Rep. Heather Wilson entered the race for retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman's (D-N.M.) seat Monday, setting up what will likely be another test of the tea party's influence in GOP primaries.

Wilson is widely considered the Republicans' top general election candidate in the Land of Enchantment, and her recruitment represents a modest win for national Republicans.

But getting the moderate ex-congresswoman through to the general election will be no small feat.

Wilson has run for the Senate before. In fact, she was a tea party victim before the tea party even existed.

When Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) called it quits in 2008, Wilson ran in a primary against the state's other Republican congressman, Steve Pearce. She fell 51 percent to 49 percent in the matchup with the more conservative Pearce, who went on to lose badly in the general election to now-Sen. Tom Udall (D).

During the race, Pearce used the slogan "liberal values, liberal votes" to attack Wilson, and the strategy paid dividends. While early polling showed Wilson as a strong favorite, she wound up losing in disappointing fashion.

It's not clear that Wilson would have won the seat in such a tough year for the GOP or even done all that much better than Pearce, but Republicans hoping to reclaim a Senate seat in New Mexico think she's stands as good a chance as anybody this time.

Most of the speakers who preceded Wilson at her announcement Monday geared their speeches toward assuring those assembled that Wilson will be a conservative.

"Everything that we believe in as Republicans, she believes in," said one.

"She's an amazing woman; a strong conservative," said another.

Wilson took the stage noting that nearly half of state House and Senate Republicans are supporting her and gave a quick shout-out to the tea party members in the room. She also landed the immediate endorsement of Domenici, a mentor who didn't endorse her until late in the 2008 primary.

She then proceded to rail against President Obama and the "Democratic-led Senate" on the individual health care mandate, foreign policy and the budget.

"He will take out an adjustable-rate mortgage larger than all of America's previous presidents combined," Wilson said of Obama.

New Mexico remains a Democratic-leaning state, but Wilson held down a swing district for many cycles. A tough campaigner who has won several top-tier races, she is a former Air Force captain and Rhodes scholar who also recently battled thyroid cancer.

In the two-plus years she's been out of office, Wilson has been reaching out to the conservative community, looking to build in-roads for a future run. But with the tea party now having emerged as a major force in the Republican Party, can Wilson make it through the primary?

Of course she can. But it will be a challenge dependent on a challenger (or lack thereof).

Wilson, as one of her final acts as a congresswoman, voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout. That might be the most painful vote she's cast when it comes to the looming primary, but it's hardly the only one she'll have to answer for.

She also voted to expand embryonic stem cell research, fought for a children's health insurance plan (S-CHIP) that President Bush vetoed, questioned the cost of the GOP-pushed 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill and was one of eight Republicans to vote against barring illegal immigrants from getting driver's licenses.

In spite of almost all of it, she nearly beat Pearce in 2008. But the primary was held before her TARP vote and long before that vote became the equivalent of a scarlet letter for Republican primary candidates. When it comes to this primary, that particular vote could be a problem for her.

How big a problem depends on how seriously she is challenged in the primary. Unlike 2008, Wilson almost certainly won't have to face down a conservative in a one-on-one fight. Former congressional candidate Greg Sowards and radio host Bill English are already in the race, and if Pearce or another big-name conservative Republican gets in -- Lt. Gov. John Sanchez's spokesman reiterated recently that he's serious considering the race -- he or she will have to compete with these two for the anti-Wilson vote.

Pearce is already making noises about how the GOP needs a "conservative candidate" -- a veiled shot at Wilson -- and hasn't ruled out running himself. And the fact that Sanchez is speaking out suggests he's not ready to let Wilson run away with the nomination.

If one of these candidates, or someone we haven't thought of yet, gets in the race and can effectively unite the tea party crowd behind them, then Wilson will be in trouble.

Whoever emerges from the GOP primary could face popular Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich or Democratic state Auditor Hector Balderas. Democrats will likely be favored to hold on to this seat in a state that is normally blue. But if Wilson can navigate the primary, the race could become a toss-up pretty quickly.

By Aaron Blake  | March 8, 2011; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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