ALBUQUERQUE—First in a series of occasional articles.
Heather Wilson made national headlines recently by forcing the Bush administration to brief members of Congress on its domestic wiretapping program.
"This is not a typical Republican district," Wilson said, "and I'm not a typical Republican."
Indeed, New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, centered in Albuquerque, is one of the most politically confounding places in the country.
It is also might be the key to the fight for control of the House of Representatives.
There will be 435 House races nationwide in November. But only a few dozen appear competitive -- none of them in California. To win back the House, Democrats must capture at least 15 seats, a tough task given their limited opportunities. They hope to take several GOP-held seats vacated by retirements. But to win a majority, Democrats must also defeat a good number of Republican incumbents, and Wilson is a top target.
On paper, the race looks promising for Democrats. They enjoy a 10-point edge in voter registration. They have recruited a top-flight challenger, state Atty. Gen. Patricia Madrid, a Latina whose crime-fighting credentials have traditionally been a big help in New Mexico. More than one in three voters in the district is Latino.
But, of course, elections are never won on paper.
Since Wilson's House seat was created nearly 40 years ago, no incumbent has ever been defeated. And despite the fact that registered Democrats have always outnumbered Republicans, no Democrat has ever been elected from the high-desert district. Wilson, 45, is undefeated after five tough campaigns, and is braced for a sixth.
"I don't take it personally anymore," she said, deadpan.
Most analysts give Wilson an edge in November, unless a wave sweeps the country, the kind of angry tide that carried Republicans to power in 1994.
Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes a nonpartisan campaign newsletter in Washington, is one of many political experts who forecast Democratic gains this fall. The question, he and others said, is whether Democrats can nationalize the election and win big -- the way Republicans did -- or if the GOP can minimize its losses by turning each House race into a contest focused on personalities and local concerns.
The Wilson-Madrid matchup offers a test case.
"It could be the desire for change is so big this election is not about Heather Wilson," Rothenberg said. "It's about George W. Bush. It's about [indicted former White House aide] Scooter Libby. It's about the war in Iraq. It's about the prescription drug benefit. Her task is to say, 'This is about me, what I've done in Washington.' "
Wilson, a competitive rower in college, is used to pushing against the current. Democrats Al Gore and John F. Kerry narrowly won her district in the last two presidential campaigns. In 2004, Democrats swept 12 of 14 races in Bernalillo County, which makes up most of the district. Wilson, at the same time, was reelected with 54% of the vote.
The 1st Congressional District, where Route 66 meets the Rio Grande, is something like 50-50 America in miniature. It has a liberal university community at its core and conservative enclaves near the Sandia Mountains to the east, and in the fast-growing suburbs to the west. Mostly urban and suburban, it is home to thousands of ticket-splitting moderate and independent voters who cross party lines as casually as they commute across the winding river.
There are paradoxes: bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic and wind-swept views that go on for miles; one of the nation's biggest populations of scientists and engineers, per capita, and a troublesome high school dropout rate.
Wilson offers her own contrasts.