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Pearce to run for governor of New Mexico

Rep. Steve Pearce, left, greets constituents who attended his town hall at the Ruidoso Convention Center in March. (Lauren Villagran/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

WASHINGTON – Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican who has represented New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District for over 12 years, will announce his campaign for governor today.

Pearce, 69, will become the second member of New Mexico’s five-member congressional delegation to shift political ambitions from Washington to Santa Fe. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, announced her 2018 campaign for governor of New Mexico in December.

Incumbent Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, is term-limited and will leave office at the end of 2018.

Pearce’s announcement makes him the first Republican to jump into the 2018 New Mexico governor’s race. Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry and Lt. Gov. John Sanchez have also been mentioned as possible GOP candidates for governor, but neither has thrown his hat in the ring.

Pearce told the Journal he’s concerned about an exodus of young people from New Mexico. He said they’re leaving to seek jobs and a better quality of life elsewhere. Pearce said his gubernatorial platform will contain four planks: improving education, reducing crime, spurring economic growth and reducing poverty.

“My grandkids don’t even want to stay in the state – they want to go somewhere else,” he said. “Every family is facing that, and I just believe it’s possible to change the course and redirect and fulfill the potential we have.”

Pearce said his experience as a member of Congress, a New Mexico state representative and an executive in the state’s oil industry has prepared him for the governor’s job. But he also said he didn’t make the decision to run easily.

“It’s one of the most difficult decisions I’ve made in elected office,” Pearce said in a Journal interview. “We could have pretty well cruised in the 2nd District, but at the end of the day, if New Mexico fails while we are getting some successes in D.C. then that’s a problem.”

The congressman said he’ll serve out his current term in Washington while running for governor.

Pearce started serving in Congress in 2003 and served through 2008, when he ran for the U.S. Senate and lost to now-Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat, in the general election. Pearce left Washington for two years after his failed Senate bid and Democrat Harry Teague represented the 2nd District for one term. Pearce ran again for the seat in 2010 and defeated Teague. He has held the seat since.

Brian Sanderoff, a longtime New Mexico political analyst who conducts scientific surveys for the Journal, said if Pearce wins the GOP primary election in June 2018 he’ll face a big challenge.

“New Mexico is a blue-leaning state, so Democrats, with all things equal, tend to have an advantage; however many Republicans have enjoyed statewide electoral success over the years,” Sanderoff said.

The pollster also noted that Republicans who have won statewide office in New Mexico have shown moderate political leanings. Sanderoff cited current Gov. Martinez, former GOP Govs. Garrey Carruthers and Gary Johnson, and former Sen. Pete Domenici as Republicans who won elections as moderates.

“Moderate Republicans running with a moderate message have had more success than conservatives in statewide races in New Mexico,” Sanderoff said.

Pearce – a member of the staunchly conservative Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House – is frequently mentioned among the most conservative members of Congress.

Pearce downplayed the notion that his reputation as a hard-right conservative would harm his chances to win the New Mexico governorship. He noted that Democrats outnumber Republicans in the 2nd District, yet he’s won the congressional seat seven times.

“I have a lot of Democratic supporters,” Pearce said. “They are not necessarily conservative but they believe I’m offering leadership and that I make sound decisions and tell the truth as I know it.”

Pearce noted that when he lost his bid for statewide office in 2008, the nation was at the height of a financial crisis and Democrats were riding an exceptional wave of popularity. Barack Obama won the White House overwhelmingly that year as the nation soured on the leadership of then-President George W. Bush.

Sanderoff said the political outlook might also be challenging for Pearce in 2018.

“He’ll be running in a mid-term of a Donald Trump presidency – a man who lost New Mexico by eight percentage points,” Sanderoff said. “The party that is not in the White House at mid-term elections tends to have a great political and electoral advantage.”

“The question is what will the mood be in 2018?” Sanderoff added.

Pearce predicted that New Mexicans, who have not enjoyed the economic recovery seen in other states in recent years, will respond favorably to his campaign.

“If we don’t start diversifying the economy and getting everyone – not just the people who are easy to hire – but everyone up and down the economic ladder into jobs and feeling that sense of pride of earned success then we have even deeper troubles ahead of us as a state,” Pearce said. “I believe my background and skill set has prepared me well to deal with those challenges.”

While Pearce is the first Republican to announce a campaign for governor, four candidates have already entered the Democrat primary race. In addition to Lujan Grisham, they are former media executive Jeff Apodaca from Albuquerque, Sen. Joseph Cervantes from Las Cruces and Peter DeBenedittis, an anti-alcohol activist from Santa Fe.

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