Trump tie haunts lone GOP candidate for New Mexico governor
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Republicans are pinning their hopes for keeping hold of the governor’s office in New Mexico on a mild-mannered congressman who helped Donald Trump win his district along the U.S. border with Mexico. Trump still lost the statewide vote in New Mexico by 8 percentage points.
U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce — the sole Republican candidate for governor — is now courting a progressive-tilting electorate that never warmed to Trump and has soured on the GOP term-limited incumbent amid a tepid state economy and rising concerns about crime in the state’s largest city.
Democrats control much of New Mexico politics. In Albuquerque, the state’s main population center, a Democratic mayor was elected in a landslide in November. The party controls the Legislature and other statewide offices.
A switch to a Democratic governor in November would likely shut Republicans out of redistricting decisions in 2021, and consolidate Democrats’ control for a decade to come.
New Mexico is one of 33 governor’s offices held by Republicans nationwide, and 26 of those are up for election this year. But in eight of those states, Hillary Clinton won the presidential vote over Trump in 2016.
“By nature of the map itself, it’s definitely going to be Republicans on the defense,” said Jared Leopold, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association. “And that’s exacerbated by the political winds.”
New Mexico, a largely rural state with the nation’s highest concentration of Hispanics, has shifted between Republican and Democratic governors for three decades even though Democrats dominate voter registration rolls. A ranching ethos and heavy currents of Roman Catholicism have helped Republican candidates win over moderate or fickle Democrats on social issues or as a counterweight to the Legislature.
After Barack Obama won New Mexico by double digits in 2008, the state twice elected Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, a tough-talking former district attorney who walked a moderate path on welfare issues by expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Taking on Pearce in November are three Democrats from Hispanic families with multi-generational roots in New Mexico: U.S. Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham; former media executive Jeff Apodaca, the son of a governor; and attorney and state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, scion of a chile-farming family.
Gabriel Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said Pearce has more to worry about than his eventual Democratic rival.
“Pearce has got to show some independence from both Trump and the outgoing governor,” he said.
A member of Congress’ hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus, Pearce has cast his congressional votes in agreement with Trump about 85 percent of the time — embracing the federal tax overhaul while publicly opposing the border wall.
In Congress, Pearce, 70, is known as a reserved, “low word-count guy” — a reflection of his struggle to overcome shyness and introversion, as recounted in a self-published 2013 memoir.
At small, private gatherings, his campaign has focused on job creation in a state with the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation and expanding an economy closely tethered to the volatile oil and natural gas sectors.
Pearce made his fortune as an entrepreneur in the state’s oil fields. But his campaign has seized on what came before that — an impoverished early childhood as a son of failed Texas sharecroppers. It has allowed Pearce to talk about poverty in tones of solidarity, while proposing work requirements for able-bodied Medicaid recipients.
“I want to attack poverty, that’s my background, that’s how I grew up, so I understand the grinding nature of it,” he said at a pre-primary forum.
Pearce opposes legalizing recreational marijuana in terms of poverty and addiction, while Democratic candidates call for decriminalization and recreational use to drum up jobs.
Environmental groups and business interests are calling out Pearce’s recommendation to shrink the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument as shortsighted — and a symbol of an affinity to the Trump administration and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Pearce’s last run for statewide office — for the U.S. Senate seat left open by Republican Pete Domenici’s retirement in 2008 — ended in a lopsided victory for Democrat Tom Udall.
Pearce returned to Congress in 2010, as Republicans amid tea party fervor.
Beyond Pearce’s district, the partisan demographics are daunting. In the vast congressional district spanning northern New Mexico, including the capital city of Santa Fe, there are nearly two registered Democrats for each Republican.
“I think everyone is really hoping that there will be a more liberal governor next year,” said Tim Carden, 31, of Santa Fe, who works in the solar energy sector.
Carden says he watched with dismay as the Trump administration placed tariffs on imported solar products and Martinez vetoed an extension of tax credits that offset installation costs.
Grisham of Albuquerque has been endorsed by several unions and four Native American tribal governments. Her campaign receives strategic support from Emily’s List, the group that helps elect women candidates who favor abortion rights.
Still, fear is spreading that infighting among Democrats may play into Republican hands.
A failed lawsuit accused Cervantes of filing signatures of dead people on his candidate registration. Lujan Grisham has been the target of attack videos posted on Facebook, while being hounded by discrimination complaints from a transgender woman fired from an internship in the congresswoman’s Washington office — allegations Lujan Grisham denies.
“The Democrats’ challenge, coming out of the primary, is unifying and avoiding a circular firing squad,” Senate majority leader Peter Wirth said.
Pearce has more cash than any candidate — nearly $2.1 million as of early April — drawing support from the oil industry and, occasionally, the National Rifle Association.
Strategists from both parties expect a deluge of “dark money” from independent groups.
Democratic state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, who endorsed Cervantes, worries New Mexico would be a “cheap investment” for deep-pocketed Republicans.
“The whole thing is just a classic opportunity for them to spend peanuts and earn a whole state,” he said.