Rep. Heather Wilson has proven she can defeat Democrats on Election Day. Whether she can beat a fellow Republican remains to be seen.
The battle-tested congresswoman from the Albuquerque-based 1st Congressional District is once again fighting for her political life as she campaigns for the U.S. Senate seat Sen. Pete Domenici will relinquish in January after 36 years in office.
Wilson, a moderate Republican, faces Rep. Steve Pearce, a conservative, three-term congressman from southern New Mexico, in the June 3 Republican primary election.
Wilson and Pearce share a political party and frequently vote the same way in Congress, but each has offered different ideas about how to best represent their state.
Both expect Republican primary voters who tend to be more conservative than general election poll-goers to focus on issues such as abortion and national defense, as well the economy. But Wilson also hopes Republicans view her as their best hope for beating a Democrat for the Domenici seat in the November general election.
Rep. Tom Udall, a popular, left-leaning Democrat representing northern New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District, is also seeking the Senate seat. He is unopposed in the June 3 Democratic primary election.
"There are clear differences in both the primary election and the general election, so people are going to have very clear choices," Wilson said over coffee on a recent morning at the Capitol Club, a Republican gathering spot near her U.S. House office.
Wilson's campaign mantra for the GOP primary is that she is a "a common-sense conservative who can win in November."
In other words, Wilson believes her relatively moderate voting record will appeal to a wider swath of voters in the general election than Pearce's more conservative record.
"We need to nominate someone who can win in November," she said. "This is a swing state, and it can go either way. I have fought tough races every two years in a district that's one of the toughest in the country for a Republican. We need to nominate someone who has a track record of being able to win where it's tough to win."
Wilson said her credentials as an Air Force Academy graduate, former National Security Council staffer under President George H.W. Bush, and current member of the House Intelligence Committee give her uncommon insight into keeping America safe.
"I have spent much of my adult life working for the security of this country in one way or another, and I have since the age of 17," Wilson said.
She suspects Americans have become complacent about national security in the years since 9/11 and insists that Congress can't be lulled to sleep by what she described as growing indifference to threats.
"The greatest accomplishment of the last six years has been what has not happened," Wilson said. "We haven't had another terrorist attack on our soil since the morning of 9/11.
"We need leaders in the Senate and in our government generally who will steward our nation's defense so that everyone else can go on with our lives," Wilson said.
Wilson, 47, arrived in New Mexico in 1991. She moved to the state to be with her new husband, Jay Hone, who had taught her in a law class at the Air Force Academy. They have three children: an adult son and two younger kids, ages 11 and 14.
Wilson founded Keystone International, a business consulting firm, after moving to Albuquerque but sold it in 1994 and sought the Albuquerque Public Schools superintendent job. She didn't get it, but Gov. Gary Johnson appointed her Cabinet secretary for the Children, Youth and Families Department the next year.
Wilson resigned the post to run for Congress when former 1st District Rep. Steve Schiff died of cancer in 1998. She has held the seat since.
After a decade in the 435-member House, Wilson said she's ready for promotion to the 100-member Senate, where rank-and-file members wield more influence over national policy.
"Not only do you get to paint on a bigger canvas, if you will, but you can try to influence the things that are important, whether it's national defense, fixing our intelligence laws or addressing health care in a way that keeps people in charge of making health decisions with their doctors," Wilson said.
Wilson, a Domenici protege, said she would obviously appreciate his endorsement but hasn't asked for it. The longtime senator has not said if he will endorse a candidate in the GOP primary.
Brian Colón, chairman of the New Mexico Democratic Party, said the Democrats' biggest complaint about Wilson is that she portrays herself as more moderate than they believe she really is.
"She has worked arm-in-arm with President Bush on each of his policies," Colón said. "She puts a little distance between herself and him ... but that does not change the fact that she's been a lock-step Republican."
The National Journal, a Washington-based magazine that tracks Congress, ranks Wilson slightly to the right of middle in the U.S. House on the liberal to conservative spectrum. She ranked as the 282nd most liberal House member, or the 148th most conservative. The ranking, published in March, is based on 2007 votes on economic, social and foreign policy issues.
Two issues important to conservatives the war in Iraq and abortion are percolating in the Pearce-Wilson primary contest.
In interviews and on the stump, Pearce has accused Wilson of opposing the U.S. troop surge in Iraq.
Wilson expressed doubts that the surge would work before it happened last year, but she has consistently voted in favor of war funding and supported President Bush's Iraq initiatives in other congressional votes.
"I have never voted against the money for the troops," Wilson said. "We've had votes for requiring the withdrawal or disapproving the surge. I've never done that."
Wilson also disputed Pearce's assertion that she is not conservative enough on anti-abortion issues.
"I'm pro-life and he has misrepresented my position several times," Wilson said.
Wilson has voted against so-called "partial birth" abortions, except when the mother's life is in jeopardy, and also voted to make it a crime to harm a fetus in the commission of a crime.
She has voted to oppose human cloning, but supported using tax dollars for research on embryonic stem cells that would otherwise be discarded. Wilson said "pro-life Republicans" with family members suffering from juvenile diabetes or Lou Gehrig's disease asked her to support embryonic stem cell research.
"Steve and I disagree on stem cell research," Wilson said. "Being pro-life means being pro-life for all of life. There were some very strong pro-life members of the Congress who voted in favor of that legislation."
She cited that as an example of how she listens to constituents instead of simply taking the conservative position every time.
"I try to address issues as they come to me," she said.
She said she hopes Republican voters recognize that she's conservative but thoughtful, and trust her to make the right decisions in the Senate.
"Almost every Republican in the state knows who I am and they know what color jersey I've been wearing," Wilson said. "Republicans have seen me taking the fight every two years, not where it's easy, but where it's hard, and there is a certain respect that comes with that."