Turning a “Toss Up” into a Landslide: Tom Udall


In late in 2007, popular six-term Senator Pete Domenici announced he would not be running for a 7th term representing New Mexico in the U.S. Senate. Domenici’s announcement set off a scramble to replace him, drawing all three of the state’s U.S. House members into the race for the open seat. Political observers considered New Mexico’s Senate contest a “toss up.”

Republicans Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce faced off in a hard fought primary in June, with Pearce prevailing and moving on to face Democrat Tom Udall in the General Election. Pearce wasted no time trying to pigeonhole Udall as an extreme liberal, too far out of the mainstream for New Mexico. On the advice of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and the campaign team, Tom Udall didn't wait for the Republican primary contest to be decided before moving ahead with a strategy to introduce himself to voters. While Udall was a relatively well known figure in New Mexico, voters’ impressions of him outside of his northern district weren't particularly well defined. Early focus groups and benchmark surveys showed that people remembered Udall from his days as the state’s Attorney General and thought of him as a good public servant with integrity. Our research showed that people believed that Tom Udall was someone who wasn't afraid to do the right thing, regardless of the political consequences.

By May, the Udall campaign was already on the airwaves, introducing Tom Udall to New Mexico voters by tracing his family’s roots in the state and recounting his successes as the state’s Attorney General and as a five-term Congressman. Before the Republicans had a nominee, voters had already learned that Tom Udall was the candidate who ‘had the integrity to do what’s right for New Mexico.’ We knew that given the poor political climate for Republicans, either Wilson or Pearce would attempt to portray Udall as an “extreme liberal.” In order to prevent these accusations from taking hold, the campaign used its advertising to paint a vivid picture of Tom Udall as a person and as a leader—someone who fought for landmark DUI laws, who took on domestic violence offenders, and who fought to save thousands of jobs at the state’s military installations.

Udall’s efforts were effective and he developed a solid lead over Pearce during the summer. But with gas prices hovering around $4 per gallon throughout the country, Republicans across the country found a hook by depicting Democrats as unwilling to take necessary measures to bring down the cost of energy—including expanded nuclear power and offshore drilling. Steve Pearce embraced this strategy, attacking Udall for opposing expanded nuclear power and offshore drilling. Nationally, some Republicans began to see dividends from this strategy, but in New Mexico, Tom Udall responded with an aggressive message calling for a “do it all” approach to our energy future. This strategy put Pearce on the defense for his longtime ties to big oil companies and his votes in Congress against funding new alternative energy. By taking the energy issue head on and winning it, Udall maintained his large lead heading towards Election Day, eventually winning a 22 point victory in a race that many had originally seen as a pure “toss-up”.\\."