By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE — A fight is taking shape in New Mexico that mirrors a political battle playing out across the country — the struggle over the direction of the Republican Party.
In one corner is Allen Weh, a 71-year-old Marine Corps veteran and business owner who is well-known across the state and, for lack of a better term, considered a “conventional” Republican.
In the other corner is little-known lawyer David Clements, 34, a self-described “strict constitutionalist,” who has been labeled an “unconventional” Republican for some of his more libertarian views.
Both men will square off June 3 in the Republican primary, with the winner facing U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from a well-known political family who won his U.S. Senate seat in 2008 by getting more than 61 percent of the vote.
Weh beat Clements at the GOP pre-primary convention Saturday. That wasn’t a surprise. The close vote was, however.
“My opponent was telling people they had a 70 percent to 30 percent advantage going in so … we’re quite encouraged,” Clements told New Mexico Watchdog a few minutes after the results were announced.
Weh, meanwhile, huddled with his campaign team behind closed doors for about 45 minutes before talking to reporters.
“I tell you what, 53 (percent) wins this thing, and I was very happy because I’ve only been a candidate for 52 days and that’s the instructive, relevant point to the win in my view,” Weh said.
What’s also relevant are the distinctions between Weh and Clements and how much their race may determine the direction for the Republican Party in New Mexico.
Just as Rand Paul is considered a standard-bearer for a more libertarian wing of the GOP — which has clashed on foreign affairs issues with long-time Capitol Hill Republicans such as John McCain or social conservatives such as Rick Santorum — Clements is seen by some as representing the new guard.
Weh, then, represents the old guard.
“That’s probably true,” said state Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque.
“Weh is a known product,” said state Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque. “Clements is a contrast with Weh since he’s not the known product … The key to the race is who will put out the best message to the people and who will move New Mexico in the right direction.”
Larrañaga and Rehm said they haven’t made up their minds between Weh and Clements.
To be sure, Clements and Weh see eye-to-eye on a host of issues — such as balancing the budget — but there are marked policy differences in other areas.
Upon entering the race in the fall, Clements said he hoped to appeal to voters of all stripes who “are sick of perpetual war.”
“They (libertarians) tend to be isolationists in their views and the United States’ role in the world, and I don’t believe in a dangerous world we can be an isolationist nation,” Weh said Saturday.
Like many libertarians, Clements has spoken out against the National Security Agency’s data collection program and what he calls the “invasion of privacy rights” on the part of the government. At Saturday’s pre-primary convention, Clements said he would fight against “a government surveillance program that’s out of control.”
But Weh defends the intelligence-gathering program, and said Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked documents to media outlets, is no hero.
“Most Americans — Republicans, Democrats and independents — see what (Snowden) did as a treasonous act against this country that put American lives in danger … You don’t jeopardize people’s lives that are serving for the country,” Weh said. “That man was treasonous for what he did, and he ought to go to jail.”
In addition to policy differences, there is plenty of antagonism between the staffers on the Weh and Clements campaigns.
Last week, Clements officials accused a Weh political adviser of hacking into their email accounts. This came after Weh received more delegates than Clements in a Bernalillo County Republican delegate election leading up to Saturday.
“Our campaign’s email was hacked and compromised and we were able to trace it back to Allen’s campaign manager, Diego Espinoza,” Clements said Saturday. “So yeah, there’s some friction there.”
Weh denied the charges, saying, “The simple fact of the matter is there were more Weh supporters in Bernalillo County than Clements supporters.”
So is the tension more personal than political?
“I’m not really sure what it is,” said Clements. “I don’t really assign a label to myself. I just kind of go out and fight for what we believe in.”
“I never knew this man until I declared my candidacy,” Weh said. “I live in Los Ranchos, N.M., he lives in Las Cruces, N.M., 200 miles away. I’ve never encountered him, so there’s nothing personal there.”
Then there’s the money difference.
Founder and CEO of an aviation company in Albuquerque, Weh spent more than $1 million in self-financing when he ran and lost the Republican nomination for governor in 2010. With much less name recognition, Clements said Saturday his campaign has spent just $26,000 so far. He has gotten no indication he’ll get a significant contribution from national Republican donors.
“We’re not counting on it,” Clements said. “We’re counting on grass-roots support. It’s not something we really have any control over but I think we might surprise some people.”
“You don’t get votes at a pre-primary convention with a bankroll,” Weh said. “You get it the old-fashioned way — talking to people. Money has nothing to do with this pre-primary election.”
Eventually, one candidate will win the primary in June and one will lose, and there’s some concern among statewide Republicans that bad feelings may cause a rift within the GOP.
“I’m hoping that doesn’t happen,” said Rehm. “Whoever wins this, we’ve got to get behind.”
“I don’t think it will be a bloodbath,” Larrañaga said.
Here’s New Mexico Watchdog video of each candidate talking about their differences:
Contact Rob Nikolewski at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski