The Hot Shot Democrat You've Never Heard Of

The author, a Princeton professor, reports from the campaign trail on a New Mexico congressional race that could make history.

I’m here in Albuquerque to volunteer for the Democrat Martin Heinrich’s campaign in the final election stretch. Once a long-shot candidate, Heinrich has turned the race around. If he pulls off a win, it would mark a minor revolution in New Mexico politics. While many of my friends and colleagues from Princeton are on the trail for Obama this weekend, I decided my energy would be better spent on a tighter race.

The recent polls show our man is up by at least three points. The early-voter turnout, which figures to be heavily Democratic, is abnormally high. The local Republicans’ tactics are getting dirty, even by Lee Atwater/Karl Rove standards, but their campaign is also running away from President Bush like a burglar caught at the scene of the crime.

This race exemplifies the big political changes that are taking place all over the country this year. New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, which includes Albuquerque and its adjoining rural counties, has chosen a Republican ever since the current district lines were drawn in 1969—through the failed Nixon presidency and then the entire age of Ronald Reagan. Yet the Republican incumbent, Heather Wilson, a standard-issue Reaganite, just barely survived the 2006 nationwide Democratic uprising. And this year, Wilson vacated her post to pursue an ultimately unsuccessful bid for her party’s nomination to the US Senate, making New Mexico One (as I’ve learned to call it) an open seat, for which both parties are always prepared to fight like hell. The campaign looms as one the Democrats might actually win, marking the end of a political era in Albuquerque in the same year one could end in the nation at large.

The Republican, Darren White, a George W. Bush Republican, has been a rising star within the New Mexico GOP, a no-nonsense former Houston cop and the local chair of Bush’s campaign in 2004 who went on two years later to win a second term as sheriff of Bernalillo County with 63 percent of the vote. Heinrich, an active environmentalist, has been a popular reform-minded Albuquerque city councilman since 2004. Heinrich also won, in 2006, the semi-official title of “ hottest man in American politics” in an odd nationwide competition—literally a beauty contest—run by the website. Hot or not, Heinrich began the campaign 18 points down in the polls—partly the result of White’s zeal as a law enforcement media hound.

The race started shifting Heinrich’s way early this fall, even before the Wall Street catastrophe transformed the political scene. At the end of September, a Department of Justice report implicated White in the continuing scandal involving the partisan firing of US attorneys in 2006. And since the financial meltdown, the White campaign has been sinking. Asked recently by the local paper how he would grade Bush’s performance, White—Bush’s own local campaign chairman four years ago—gave him a “D.” Cutting its losses, perhaps prematurely, the National Republican Campaign Committee has pulled its financial resources out of the race, leaving the state party and White’s own supporters to soldier on, with the help of the right-wing propaganda group Freedom’s Watch, run out of D.C. by a clutch of White House cronies. White’s ads have also turned sharply negative, falsely accusing Heinrich of dishonoring American troops in Iraq and of having nefarious ties to eco-terrorists.

From all I’d read about Heinrich, and heard about him from friends, the attacks seemed more desperate than fearsome, especially coming this late in the game. Heinrich looks like a solid candidate on a solid roll, the same roll that Democrats everywhere are enjoying this year. But when his staffer Rebekah Walker dropped me off at my hotel, I felt uneasy about the slender margin in the polling—and became interested all over again in doing what I could to help the hottest man in American politics, about whom almost all of America as yet knows nothing.

October 28

There is nothing in political campaigning I dread more than working the phone banks: cold-calling voters to encourage them to give money or time or simply their vote to my worthy candidate. It’s even worse when the calling involves talking up an event in which I will be one of the speakers, which is like a circus sideshow attraction also working as carnie barker, bidding strangers to step right up and come inside the tent. But that’s my job this morning.

Heinrich headquarters is a warren of rooms—a former public health clinic, I learn—in a so-so stretch of low-rises a block away from the venerable old Route 66. All here is in conventional campaign improvisational style: hand-lettered signs mark off bathrooms and communications rooms and rooms strictly for authorized personnel. Few of the “authorized” appear to be over 30.

I finally meet the candidate in the designated phone calling room. It’s immediately easy to see why Heinrich won his beauty contest (the slightest mention of it seems to annoy him) but he wears his good looks lightly. Low-key, unassuming, yet also deeply informed and of serious mien, he tells me how grateful he is that I’ve traveled all this way and is curious about what I do in real life—even as he revs up for his own phone work.

I’m supposed talk to Democrats—especially Hillary Clinton supporters—who have yet to donate the maximum to Heinrich, and who we hope will attend the fundraiser tonight in Santa Fe where I’m to speak with my friend Ambassador Joe Wilson—yes, that Wilson, husband to the CIA agent vindictively outed by the White House and Robert Novak. I’m to tell those on the line who I am, why they should give Martin their support to put him over the line, and then pitch the Santa Fe reception.

Of course it’s a humbling experience, even for an outsider. People out here are polite, but not about to be impressed or cajoled by a Princeton professor. I tell one woman that, along with supporting Clinton during the primaries, I wrote early on about how Bush may be the worst president in American history. Comes the tart reply: “Well, I’ve been saying that since before he was inaugurated.” Another ex-Clintonite is so bitter about the primary outcome, and so frightened by the inexperienced Barack Obama—“a menace,” she says—that she has quit the Democratic Party and is supporting John McCain. I don’t get the chance to give my instantly made-up paean to the virtues of ticket-splitting.

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Some hear my accent and the first two words of my pitch, know right away what I’m up to, and hang up. (Who can blame them?) I finally get an enthusiast, but it turns out she’s in Pennsylvania and obviously can’t make the event. (Cell phones, the vital link in any modern campaign, also have their downside.)

The event starts at 6 in a fine home perched on a hill, with gorgeous views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. On the road, I think about how nice it will be to see Joe in situ, then worry about what an Ivy League historian could possibly say to Santa Feans about the issues and Martin Heinrich that would not sound either poncey or like a generic cut-and-paste job, and try to compose a few lines in my head. I’ve done this sort of campaign living-room pitch numerous times; and each time I feel just as apprehensive as I do before the first lecture of the academic year.

October 29

No need to have worried last night. Joe Wilson, with whom I’ll be staying in Santa Fe, always knows everybody wherever he is, and between him and the campaign staffers, I am quickly put at ease. Joe moved out to New Mexico with Valerie Plame and their twins just over a year ago, and he has adapted well: Bearded and dressed in casual Western gear, he looks more like a teddy bear than the fearsome, sleek-suited brawler who took on the Bush-Cheney White House and won a measure of vindication when Scooter Libby was indicted and convicted. The candidate introduces Joe to the small crowd; Joe, the Democratic hero, says some lovely things about me, and I try to return the favor, then launch into an excursus on the end of the age of Reagan and the historical imperative of electing Heinrich, and end with all I can muster about the immense challenges of the uncertain era that is dawning. The audience mainly seems relieved at my not exactly risky prediction that Obama will win big on Tuesday and that Heinrich is well on his way to Capitol Hill, though a few people afterward do thank me for the free history lesson.

The Santa Fe aura lures a quirky mix of artists, would-be artists, successful professionals who have forsaken the rat race, nuclear scientists who work at nearby Los Alamos, and genuine 1960s counter-culture survivors. The crowd utterly lacks pretense but not, apparently, money, as open checkbooks abound even at this tail end of the campaign.

After a pleasant day off, wandering through Santa Fe’s rustic shops and museums, I go back to Joe’s place in the hills for an evening with his kids (Valerie is on the road, lecturing, back East), watching the Phillies finally win the Series (happy omen?), before tuning in CNN for the great Barack and Bubba rally in Orlando. Wilson and I were among the few liberal writers who, during the primaries, not only spoke up on behalf of Hillary Clinton but were daring—or reckless?—enough to criticize Obama and his campaign. We’ve long since bonded over that dark and lonely work, just as we’ve long since made our separate jumps to Obama. But we can’t help noticing how Bill seems to dominate the Florida event, how much in his element he is.

October 30

I must have passed the audition the other night in Santa Fe, because the Heinrich staff has asked me to put in another performance, at a final gathering of the faithful, maxed-out donors in Albuquerque, in a penthouse atop the city’s tallest building.

It’s looking to me more and more as if Heinrich can pull out a victory. I’m told that two of the premier national political handicappers, Stuart Rothenberg and Charlie Cook, have moved the race from the “toss-up” column to “leaning Democratic.” Martin, arriving right behind me, chats amiably, if guardedly, about going to Washington, and tells the assembled, in a final goad into the breach, that the Republicans don’t know what has hit them.

The penthouse view is magnificent, as a softening New Mexican glare cups the peaks of the mountains bordering the city. I linger at the window, taking a last long glimpse. Then I’m drawn to a picture on a wall near the makeshift wine bar: a faux-traditional retablo icon depicting, of all people, Johnny Cash, and inscribed with a line of Cash’s about how heaven and hell are separated not by a fence but by a gulf, a chasm where no man ever wants to be.

Now I’ve found my speech’s lede—and after Martin hushes the gathering, delivers his goad, and introduces me before rushing off to another event, I gesture to the painting and allow that, though I can’t say much about heaven or hell, I can say we’ve all landed in a chasm these last eight years, but that it looks as if we might just be starting to climb out of it.

It isn’t the cleverest way to begin a campaign speech amid the rousing enthusiasm of these hopeful final days, and I don’t think it went over terribly well, but I meant every word.

Sean Wilentz is a History Professor at Princeton University. He is the author of numerous books, including The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln and The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008. A contributing editor at The New Republic, and historian-in residence at Bob Dylan's official website, he writes widely on music and the arts as well as history and politics.