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Republicans take sides in race for party chair

SANTA FE – Prominent New Mexico Republicans are picking sides in a state party leadership race.

In a Monday memo to state GOP central committee members, former House Speaker Don Tripp announced his endorsement of Albuquerque businessman John Rockwell, who is running for party chairman against outgoing U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce.

Meanwhile, Pearce has secured the backing of several current state GOP lawmakers, including recently elected House Minority Leader James Townsend of Artesia and Rep. Yvette Herrell of Alamogordo, who was defeated in her bid for the 2nd Congressional District seat that Pearce is vacating.

State Republican Party insiders will meet Saturday in Albuquerque to pick a new party chairman after an election in which Democrats won all statewide offices on the ballot and picked up eight seats in the state House of Representatives.

Pearce announced his candidacy shortly after being defeated by Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico’s governor’s race. Despite running for the party chairman post, he has not ruled out a 2020 run for his current congressional seat, according to a campaign spokesman.

Pearce, a Hobbs resident, has said he would rebuild the state Republican Party, which has been roiled by infighting in recent years. After this year’s general election, several loyalists to Gov. Susana Martinez’s political machine lashed out at current state GOP leaders.

However, Rockwell, who ran unsuccessfully for GOP chairman in 2012 and 2016, has said Pearce would represent a status quo choice at a time when Republicans should be seeking change.

In his endorsement memo, Tripp said Rockwell would implement a “bottom-up” strategy that would emphasize local elections. He also suggested Republicans have been focused on high-priced consultants at the expense of empowering candidates.

A Socorro resident whose wife, Rosie, is a Republican National Committee member, Tripp was speaker of the House from 2015 through 2016, when Republicans held a majority in the chamber. He resigned from the Legislature in January 2017 after Democrats reclaimed control of the House.

Whoever is elected to a two-year term as state party chairman will take over the party’s reins from Ryan Cangiolosi, who is not seeking re-election. New Mexico Democrats are expected to pick a new party leader of their own next spring.

Dan Boyd: