WASHINGTON – Despite a numerical advantage among voters in the state, Democrats in the 1st Congressional District of New Mexico have been unable to topple incumbent Rep. Heather Wilson (search), an Oxford scholar and former Air Force officer who sits on the Armed Services Committee.
Political analysts say this year, challengers will have a tougher time than ever, as the four-term Republican is performing well raising funds and has long cemented her support among her constituency and with the Republican Party faithful.
On the contrary, Democrats say the time is ripe to get rid of Wilson as an "enabler" of the Bush administration.
"There is no reason why Republicans should be representing us here," said physician Miles Nelson (search), who is running in the June 1 Democratic primary for the chance to challenge Wilson. He said a battle over ideas, a clash over the war in Iraq and a fight about health care, among other issues, are in the offing.
"This is the most important election in our lifetime," Nelson added.
Nelson's primary opponent, state Sen. Richard Romero (search), ran and lost against Wilson 55 percent to 45 percent in 2002. He insists that his party has learned from past mistakes and plans to run hard — and early — this time around.
"I am a better candidate today than I was a year ago," Romero told Foxnews.com. As of April 1, he had $305,000 on hand while Wilson reported $898,000 in the bank. He said he’s raised more money than at the same time in the last campaign and much of it will go to television advertising.
"The last election was really good education for me and for our campaign," he said. "We realized how important money is, and how important early money is."
Meanwhile, Wilson and her supporters concede that this is a competitive district, which is 43 percent Hispanic. There are more registered Democrats than Republicans, and Vice President Al Gore beat George W. Bush here in 2000. Voters come from urban areas — 90 percent of Wilson's constituents live in the city of Albuquerque — to suburban middle class, and from liberal to conservative. Wilson also represents military households connected to Kirtland Air Force base.
Wilson, the only female veteran to serve in Congress, said she is confident and ready for any challenge the Democrats can produce.
"We run hard and we work hard," she told Foxnews.com. "I always expect that this district will be competitive, whether the incumbent is a Democrat or a Republican — it’s a swing district."
Elected in 1998 in a special election, Wilson graduated from the Air Force Academy (search) and served in the Air Force as an officer from 1978 to 1989. She worked as a defense planning officer for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (search) at the time and served as a negotiator and political adviser for the U.S Air Force in Great Britain.
Afterward, she served under President George H.W. Bush on the National Security Council (search) as director of Defense Policy and Arms Control. In Congress, she currently serves on the Armed Services subcommittee on troop readiness, a role colleague Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., says underscores her military background.
"She is very, very sharp," Miller told Foxnews.com. "She is clearly officer material and I say that with the highest respect. I think it has made her a very productive and valuable member of the Armed Services Committee and of Congress."
But her opponents warn about the impact of the war on this year’s elections.
"The district feels we have put our soldiers in harm’s way and resent that we are in Iraq to begin with," Nelson said.
He and others say Wilson’s officer experience does not seem to extend to sensitivity for veterans' issues. "I’m going to walk the walk," said Romero, also a veteran. "She doesn’t support our veterans, believe me."
Wilson said she is used to criticism, and has chosen in her last two years in office to concentrate in part on local issues, mainly growing business and public education. She said she is behind the president’s No Child Left Behind (search) initiative, which she credits with doubling the amount of federal education aid to New Mexico and greater school accountability.
Wilson said she has backed initiatives to help teach teachers and to give them a break on their student loans. She has also introduced legislation that would give teachers a tax credit for working in high-poverty school districts.
"About a third of kids in Albuquerque do not graduate high school; we have a large number of children who are growing up in poverty," she said. "We have a big disconnect between the opportunities available and the education these kids are getting."
Her opponents say that much of the No Child Left Behind effort is still under-funded, and believes its accountability rules put non-English speaking students at a disadvantage. They also suggest she is setting up the public system for a fall in order to make way for private school vouchers in the future.
"I support school choice for public schools and I am a strong supporter of charter schools," Wilson said. "But I don’t think it’s a federal issue and I don’t want to see federal vouchers. I do think we need great public schools in every neighborhood, so there is always a good school there for children whose parents aren’t there, or don’t care."
Chris Paulitz, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the party is not particularly worried about Wilson this year.
"Every year she gets tougher and tougher," he said.
Nathan Gonzales, who works for the Rothenberg Political Report, said that unless a tremendous wave of backlash washes over President Bush and the Republican Party, Wilson is in a safe place.
"She’s proved to be a tough opponent," he said, adding, "there is little evidence of a swell" in regards to any anti-GOP backlash.
But Greg Speed, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is so far pushing Romero’s candidacy, said he sees things differently.
"We view this as one of the top races in the country," he said, adding that Wilson’s military background will not be able to shield her in 2004.
"We’re not going to cede an inch on veterans’ issues and the military," he said. "[Wilson] has been far more concerned with issues that have nothing to do with New Mexico and that makes her vulnerable."