Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
LAS CRUCES – There’s a crowded field of candidates – four Republicans and two Democrats – competing for the 2nd Congressional District seat, long held by Rep. Steve Pearce, who decided to run for governor rather than seek re-election.
“Anytime you have a popular incumbent vacating a congressional district, it creates a lot of activity and excitement,” said Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc., and a longtime observer of New Mexico politics.
Pearce, a Republican, has been in office for 13 years.
On the June 5 Republican primary ballot are Gavin Clarkson, a New Mexico State University business professor and former Trump administration official; Clayburn Griffin, a digital marketing specialist living in Lovington; state Rep. Yvette Herrell of Alamogordo; and Monty Newman, a business owner and former mayor of Hobbs.
Two candidates are running in the Democratic primary: Madeline Hildebrandt of Socorro, an adjunct government professor; and Xochitl Torres Small, a native of Las Cruces who is a lawyer and former field organizer for Democratic Sen. Tom Udall.
Southern New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, one of the largest in the country, includes Los Lunas and Las Cruces, New Mexico’s second-largest city, and stretches to the Arizona and Texas state lines and south to the Mexican border. It’s home to farms and ranches, as well as oil and gas fields. A bit of southern Bernalillo County is also in the district.
Policies affecting energy and trade – both economic engines for New Mexico – are important in the region.
The Santa Teresa border crossing is credited with booming trade with Mexico, but the border area is also a backdrop for divisive political debates about illegal immigration and President Donald Trump’s effort to build a “big, beautiful wall.”
There is a deep pocket of progressive voters in Las Cruces. But the rural region, rooted in conservative values, is traditionally a Republican stronghold even though slightly more registered voters are Democrats.
“The fact that there’s 40 percent Democrats and 36 percent Republicans doesn’t mean the Democratic Party has the edge, because there are still a lot of conservative Democrats in southern New Mexico,” Sanderoff said.
There are also a large number of independent voters who don’t identify with either party and because of New Mexico’s closed primaries won’t be casting ballots in June.
The congressional race has attracted national interest in a year when Democrats hope to translate Trump’s approval ratings into votes that could give the party a majority after midterm elections.
“We really have a great chance of not just holding the 1st Congressional District, but I believe of picking up the 2nd Congressional District of New Mexico,” Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a New Mexico Democrat who is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told the Journal.
“I think President Trump’s politics and policies will be rejected in New Mexico … as well as the failed policies of Gov. (Susana) Martinez.”
Turnout for the primaries may reflect that dissatisfaction, because voter interest typically wanes during midterm elections. Voter participation among Hispanics, who are a majority in the 2nd Congressional District, continues to lag.
The Republicans have some well-known names on the primary ballot and that could help boost turnout.
The Democratic candidates, among a record number of women running for office, are appealing to New Mexicans ready for new leadership in Washington in a district that has historically been in the firm grip of Republicans since it was created in 1969 with two exceptions: Harold Runnels in the 1970s and Harry Teague, who served one term after being elected in 2008, when Pearce left to run for the Senate.
Pearce, who did not win a Senate seat, was re-elected to Congress in 2010.
“It would take a very strong blue wave for the Democrat to win,” Sanderoff said.