Republicans in New Mexico and Washington say that vote could cost Bingaman his seat. With more than 40 percent of the electorate being Hispanic, they reason, opposing the first Hispanic to become the nation’s top law-enforcement officer was impolitic.
“I think that’s really going to hurt him,” said Cheryl Garcia, a member of the state GOP’s Executive Committee. Another New Mexico Republican said the party would likely blanket the state’s airwaves with ads spotlighting the vote.
Michael McKee, also on the executive panel, said Bingaman’s vote had alienated Hispanic leaders. He added that other Hispanic voters would take their cue from these community activists.
Democrats dismissed talk of turning the Gonzales vote into a political liability, arguing that the Republicans simply had no viable candidate to run against Bingaman. The Democrat won his last election with 62 percent, compared to his GOP rival’s 38 percent.
Yesterday, former Gov. Gary Johnson, a libertarian-leaning Republican who supports legalizing marijuana, ruled out a race. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) is said to be mulling over a candidacy.
Republicans also have mentioned Rep. Steve Pearce (R), but a spokesman for the congressman said yesterday morning that Pearce would not seek the Senate seat; and they have been talking up John Sanchez, an Albuquerque businessman who earlier defeated a state House Speaker. (Democrats noted that the House Speaker shared Sanchez’s last name, and that the incumbent had nearly lost his seat in previous elections. They added that Sanchez was soundly defeated when he ran against Democrat Bill Richardson for governor, in 2002.)
“My view is that they are making a huge error, a patronizing error, among all Hispanics and Latinos, in thinking that people cannot distinguish between a principled vote on what turned out to be one of the worst examples of American foreign policy in the modern era and a person’s ethnic background,” said John Wertheim, chairman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, referring to Republicans’ hoping to make political hay out of the Gonzales vote.
Other Democrats echoed Wertheim. Yesterday, Bingaman’s Senate office issued comments made by Bingaman on the Senate floor before the vote.
In his comments, Bingaman said he would normally back Gonzales, given his Horatio Alger story and Hispanic roots.
But Bingaman said he was disturbed by Gonzales’s support for the administration’s torture and detainment policies.
He argued that “removing the bright line that has guided our troops for the last 60 years” would endanger U.S. forces.
Still, Republicans believe they have a winning issue in the Gonzales vote, even if most of the names of potential challengers being bandied about in Albuquerque political circles have yet to generate much excitement among the rank and file.
These Republicans point out that many Democrats backed Gonzales, including Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) and Henry Cisneros, housing secretary under President Clinton. Both Salazar and Cisneros are of Hispanic descent.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) issued a statement the day of the Gonzales vote making the same point.
A senior Republican official who works with the New Mexico congressional delegation said the Gonzales vote had sounded a “jarring note” back home.
“I think his reasoning is that he’s kind of in a semi-leadership position in the Senate now,” the official said. Referring to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), who opposed Gonzales, the officials added: “He’s close to Reid. I think he felt like he had to be unified. But that’s one of those votes that surprised me.”
Both Republicans and Democrats contend that the character of New Mexico’s Hispanic population works to their benefit.
Republicans argue that New Mexico Hispanics, many of whom have been in the United States for six or seven generations, are attuned to goings on in Washington and won’t be cowed by traditional Democratic appeals to party loyalty. Democrats counter that Republicans’ understanding of Hispanics is monolithic and that trying to woo Hispanic voters by running television ads about the Gonzales vote would backfire.
One New Mexico Democrat said these ethnic nuances — nuances, he contended, that were critical to winning elections in Hispanic communities — were reflected in the local vernacular.
“The preferred term in New Mexico is ‘Hispanic’ because it has a tie to Spain,” the Democrat said. “ ‘Latino’ is okay. ‘Chicano’ is insulting, and ‘Mexican’ is really insulting to many, many traditional Hispanics because they consider themselves Spanish.”
Jude McCartin, a spokeswoman for Bingaman, said the senator has a long record of supporting issues important to Hispanics such as health-care and education.
Republicans said President Bush’s improved performance among Hispanics, as well as his success in capturing New Mexico in 2004, have apparently made their prospects brighter in 2006.
They also pointed out that Bingaman has relatively little cash on hand. According to his most recent Federal Election Commission report, the senator had $384,000 available. Campaign operatives estimate that a strong campaign would take between $2 million and $5 million.
New Mexico Republicans, including GOP Committeeman George Buffett, speculated that Bingaman announced his plans to run for reelection early in the campaign cycle so that he could begin raising money sooner instead of later.
Garcia, of the GOP Executive Committee, said Marco Gonzales, who co-chaired the Viva Bush Coalition during the 2004 campaign, would be working with the Republicans to reach Hispanic voters and to highlight Bingaman’s voting record. Gonzales, who is no relation to the attorney general, could not be reached for comment.