Is the GOP Headed to a Revival in the Land of Enchantment?

April 22, 2010 · 10:40 AM EDT

Talk about being down and out. After last year’s elections, the New Mexico GOP looked about as energetic as a three-week-old corpse.

Democrats controlled both of the state’s Senate seats, all three of its House seats and six of the state’s seven statewide offices. The Republicans’ only beachhead was the office of the state commissioner of public lands. The Legislature was equally overwhelmingly Democratic.

And in the presidential contest, the state that had two squeakers in 2000 (Al Gore by 366 votes) and 2004 (George W. Bush by 5,988 votes) turned into a 15-point blowout for Democrat Barack Obama.

But Republicans seem almost certain to win back at least one of the state’s Congressional districts, the 2nd district, and now appear to have a least a fighting chance to take back the 1st district.

Freshman Rep. Harry Teague seemed just the kind of Democrat who could hold the 2nd district, which is a huge land area that encompasses the southern half of the state. A moderate who defeated a supposedly credible GOP nominee by a dozen points in 2008, Teague understood his district and seemed to embody its conservatism.

But Republican strategists now burst into broad smiles at the mention of the New Mexico Democrat, believing that they have the right candidate — former Rep. Steve Pearce — and the right issue — cap-and-trade — to oust Teague in his oil- and gas-producing district.

Pearce ended March with $709,000 in the bank, not much less than Teague’s $927,000.

Democrats don’t put up much resistance when Teague’s name appears on “most vulnerable” lists, a clear indication that party strategists understand he has a very difficult path to re-election.

But while Republican strategists are confident of defeating Teague, they are guardedly optimistic of ousting freshman Rep. Martin Heinrich in the state’s Albuquerque-based 1st district.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have given you a nickel for GOP chances against Heinrich, the 30-something former Albuquerque city councilman who made women’s heads turn whenever he happened to be at Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee headquarters last cycle.

Two years ago, GOP operatives talked about the potential of the party’s Congressional nominee, Sheriff Darren White, holding retiring Rep. Heather Wilson’s open seat. But Heinrich buried White by more than 11 points in a district where a 2- or 3-point victory has been the rule.

Heinrich still has to be regarded as the favorite in his bid for re-election, but the change in the national mood and an unusually appealing GOP challenger make this definitely a race to watch.

Jon Barela is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Georgetown Law. He worked on Capitol Hill for the late Rep. Joe Skeen (R-N.M.), including three years on the staff of the House Appropriations Committee, and later served as New Mexico assistant attorney general and director of the Civil Division.

Barela has also been in private practice, worked for Intel and started a small business. From 1999 to 2001, he served as chairman of the board of New Mexico First, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that addresses state issues, and in 2007-08 he served as vice chairman of the state Republican Party. He is also a former president of the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce.

Through the first quarter of 2010, Barela had raised over $520,000, ending March with $392,000 in the bank. Given that White spent almost $1.8 million last cycle to Heinrich’s almost $2.5 million, Barela has work to do. Heinrich’s first-quarter Federal Election Commission report showed him with just over $1 million in the bank.

But Barela’s appeal is real. In a recent interview in the nation’s capital, he came across as thoughtful, mature and likeably low-key. His issue positions and party label aside, he’s the kind of candidate almost any voter would think would be an asset on Capitol Hill.

State and national Republicans have already coalesced around the attorney and businessman. He has considerable appeal to district Hispanics, in part because of his heritage, but also because, unlike most Republicans, he doesn’t favor the dismantling of affirmative action programs and backs a comprehensive solution of the nation’s illegal immigrant problem.

But Barela has plenty of ammunition to use against Heinrich, including the freshman’s votes for the stimulus, cap-and-trade and health care reform.

Two years ago, when I interviewed Heinrich during one of his trips to Washington, D.C., I knew that he was the real deal. I got the same feeling after meeting Barela. These are two very good candidates in what has proved to be a very competitive Congressional district.

About a week ago, the Rothenberg Political Report added this district to our list of almost five dozen House seats in play. We rated it as “Democrat favored.” But after meeting Barela and looking more closely at the race, I’ll have to reclassify it as “Lean Democrat” (a more competitive category), and as long as Barela raises enough money to be competitive and the current national mood is unchanged, I’d expect the race in New Mexico’s 1st district to go down to the wire.