Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Steve Pearce is no stranger to headwinds, given his background as an Air Force pilot and his secret, solo mission to fly a plane around the globe that he embarked on in 2016 in honor of American veterans.
But the stiff breeze Pearce is facing in this year’s New Mexico governor’s race might require all the political navigation skills the longtime Republican congressman can summon.
With his Democratic opponent, Michelle Lujan Grisham, ahead in recent polls and national left-leaning groups flexing their political muscle on her behalf, Pearce has been left to largely fend for himself in an election cycle in which the national voter mood could make things tricky for GOP candidates.
“My task has been to accelerate through that headwind. … It’s simply something I have to overcome,” Pearce, 71, said in a recent Journal interview.
While remaining upbeat about his chances in the race, Pearce has launched hard-hitting TV campaign ads in recent weeks that target Lujan Grisham’s past business dealings and, in one case, a terminally ill cancer patient who was featured in a Lujan Grisham advertisement.
Critics say Pearce is trying to portray himself as a moderate in the governor’s race despite the Hobbs Republican’s conservative record in Congress and affiliation with the hard-line Freedom Caucus.
But Pearce himself brushes aside questions about whether he’s trying to appeal to moderate Democrats, saying, “This is not about messaging to anyone; this is about the future of the state.”
Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh, a Republican who previously served in the state House, acknowledged GOP candidates could face electoral difficulties this year, due in large part to it being the first general election since President Donald Trump took office in 2017.
However, he said Pearce could fare better than other Republicans running in New Mexico because of his indefatigable nature on the campaign trail.
“It’s an uphill battle; any idiot can see that,” Kintigh said. “But if anyone can do it, it’s Steve Pearce.”
Across the aisle
This year’s gubernatorial race is wide-open because two-term Republican Gov. Susana Martinez is barred from seeking a third consecutive term as governor.
Although Pearce served as the master of ceremonies at Martinez’s inauguration in 2011, the relationship between the two Republicans appears to have gotten icy in recent years.
Martinez declined to answer a question earlier this year about whether she would vote for Pearce, who was unopposed in the primary election.
And Pearce hasn’t been shy about criticizing some of the outgoing governor’s policies.
“Susana is a prosecutor. I’m a business guy. You can’t even correlate (the two of us),” he told the Journal. “I don’t have any complaint about what she did; she just didn’t have the background to diversify or grow the economy.”
Martinez also clashed frequently in recent years with the Democratic-controlled Legislature, but Pearce insists he would fare differently.
Pearce has teamed up with Democrats on some issues in Congress – including a 2014 immigration bill he co-sponsored with U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas – and says he could also find bipartisan common ground on key policy issues at the Roundhouse.
“I’m one of the ones that works as far across the aisle as anyone, and that’s what it’s going to take to get some of these things through the Legislature,” he said.
Pearce previously served in the Legislature, from 1997 through 2000. He was elected to represent the southern New Mexico-based 2nd Congressional District in 2002 and has held the seat since then – with a two-year gap after he ran in 2008 for the U.S. Senate, losing to Democrat Tom Udall.
Pearce’s gubernatorial campaign has focused primarily on four issues – education, poverty, crime and diversifying the economy – that he says are interrelated and key to improving New Mexico’s long-term fortunes.
To accomplish that, Pearce has called for an expansion of apprenticeship programs, more work-training programs for released inmates and an increase in state dollars going into classrooms – in part by reducing administrative spending in the public school system.
He also says he’ll make the Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences, a success story.
Pearce said legislators’ talk about scrapping the project, launched under the administration of then-Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, has only served to destabilize its economic viability.
“I will not accept failure on a $220 million investment,” said Pearce, who acknowledged interest in taking part in commercial space travel.
Meanwhile, Pearce said much of the $1.2 billion in “new” money that’s expected to be available in the coming budget year should be spent on public works projects – including broadband access – and bolstering the state’s cash reserves.
The windfall is due primarily to unprecedented oil production levels in southeast New Mexico.
“I don’t want to grow the size of government. The government is big enough,” Pearce said. “It’s working now – it may be working poorly, but it’s not like we need to double the size of government.”
When it comes to his opponent, Pearce has stepped up his attacks in recent weeks.
He has specifically linked Lujan Grisham to Richardson, who had to withdraw his nomination to be U.S. commerce secretary in 2009 due to a pay-to-play investigation that did not lead to any indictments.
Lujan Grisham led the state’s Department of Health under Richardson before abruptly resigning in 2007.
“She’s rebuilding the Richardson administration – same donors, same insiders and the same practices,” Pearce said in reference to Lujan Grisham.
He also said that, if elected governor, he would push for a new state law that would bar elected officials from holding contracts with the state.
“New Mexico has suffered under corruption for too long and we just act like it’s normal,” Pearce said.
However, Pearce has also faced criticism about his own willingness to be transparent, specifically when it comes to releasing his personal tax returns.
After state Democrats hammered him on the issue, Pearce recently said he would release his 2017 returns in mid-October. Lujan Grisham already released five years of her state and federal income tax returns in May.
Pearce’s assets in 2017 were valued at between $7.5 million and more than $36 million, based on the financial disclosure report he filed earlier this year as a member of Congress. He reported holdings in several companies, including a Hobbs-based firm that rents party equipment, such as tables and chairs.
With Election Day just over five weeks away, Pearce says he’s not deterred by a Journal Poll from last month that showed him trailing Lujan Grisham by 7 percentage points.
One advantage he might have in the final run-up to the Nov. 6 general election is a financial one. He reported having roughly $1.9 million in his war chest as of last month, compared with about $1.3 million for Lujan Grisham.
But whether that money edge can help turn back a potential blue wave in a state in which registered Democrats outnumber Republicans remains to be seen.
“A year and a half or two years ago, no one gave us a shot,” Pearce told the Journal. “We’re not fading, and we haven’t faded, and we’re going to win the race.”