Running for Their Lives

Neglected children, hellish commutes, shrill coworkers, and first pitches at Little League games— why it’s no picnic to be a moderate in the House of Representatives

Heather Wilson, the forty-five-year-old five-term Republican from New Mexico, is an Air Force Academy graduate and a former Rhodes scholar; she is also something of an anomaly among the representatives whose seats are up for grabs. While Democratic voters in her district have an edge over Republicans, she has voted with her party 87 percent of the time since Bush took office, showing enough of an independent streak that Democrats sometimes have trouble depicting her as a GOP crony. Wilson sided with Democrats to ask the Bush administration to reveal the true cost of its expensive Medicare drug program, and she recently introduced legislation that would require administration officials to brief Congress on electronic surveillance. But because the Democrats think she’s vulnerable, her fund-raising challenge is even greater than usual. Last election, her opponent and national Democrats spent $3.3 million against her. In the previous four contests, her opponents spent more than $10 million trying to win—and that’s not counting the money liberal advocacy groups have poured into her races. Wilson estimates that she will need to raise $4 million this year to emerge victorious. Her opponent, New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid, has already raised nearly $2 million, and expects to raise “nearly as much” as Wilson.

In addition to the fourteen-hour workday Wilson often puts in—soliciting money, sitting on the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Intelligence Committee, and taking care of constituents—she faces a grueling weekly commute that takes seven hours each way (if all goes smoothly) between her studio in Washington and her full-time residence in Albuquerque. Wilson’s family is used to this: her daughter, Cait, was just over eighteen months old when her mother first won federal office, and by age three she had developed a hand signal to use when she wanted undivided attention in the face of Wilson’s official demands: she clenches her hand in a fist, like an O, and then splays her three middle fingers downward: Ordinary Mom. (When Cait was younger and would say “I want you” over the phone to Wilson, the congresswoman recalls, “it was almost physically painful.”)

Despite some help from the party and the White House, Wilson shoulders most of the fund-raising and campaigning burden herself. One day in early July, she spent part of her morning calling local firefighters, one by one, urging them to show up on July 13 for their union’s congressional-endorsement vote. Just before lunch she reached Jeremy Polk, a loyal supporter and member of the Bernalillo Fire Department, whose six-year-old son, Austin, had posed in one of Wilson’s campaign posters. “I think we’ve got a lot of friends in the fire department, and I just want them to know it might be a close vote, and I’d be honored to earn your support again,” she told Polk. At the close of the conversation, she added that she’d be sure to look for Austin when she next saw a Bounty commercial, since the towheaded youngster is now in the business of plugging paper towels. And there you have Wilson’s life in a nutshell: chatting about paper-towel ads with a union guy, in between meeting with a local semiconductor company and lunching with women business leaders at the local Olive Garden.

The only people who put in longer hours than imperiled rank-and-file members are those who lead them. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi works fourteen-hour days whether or not Congress is in session. (Many Hill watchers wonder how the sixty-six-year-old Pelosi can toil so hard while remaining immaculately dressed and consistently perky. One answer: massive consumption of high-quality chocolate.) Pelosi’s schedule between 1:15 p.m. on Friday, June 23, and 9:00 p.m. on Monday, June 26, featured stops in Providence; Cambridge, Massachusetts; San Juan; Pittsburgh; and Washington, D.C., and included five fund-raisers, three media appearances, two official meetings, one charity event, and a dinner for members of Congress that she hosted in her own home. During that single eighty-hour period, she raised $1 million for House Democrats. House Speaker Dennis Hastert is working just as hard: by election day he will have campaigned for at least 200 House Republicans—which is to say, nearly all of them.

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