SANTA FE – Rep. Steve Pearce was elected Saturday as the new chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, after vowing to expand the party’s outreach in the wake of heavy defeats up and down the ballot in this year’s election cycle.
The well-known congressman, who gave up his southern New Mexico-based seat this year to launch an unsuccessful run for governor, defeated John Rockwell by a 276-101 vote at a state GOP central committee meeting in Albuquerque to win the party leadership post.
He said Republicans would, over the next two years, seek to make inroads among minority voters and in traditionally Democratic strongholds statewide.
“We are going to show up where they don’t expect Republicans to show up,” Pearce said.
However, Pearce will also face the task of trying to unify a party that’s been rife with infighting and factions in recent years.
Rockwell, his opponent in Saturday’s leadership election, had called for more drastic changes and said during his speech that recent party leaders had failed to support outgoing GOP Gov. Susana Martinez.
But those comments prompted some groans from party insiders, who ultimately sided with Pearce’s experience and connections to help rebuild a Republican Party that will enter January without control of a single statewide office. Those voting Saturday included all elected GOP officials, as well as community- and precinct-level party officials.
Pearce told reporters after Saturday’s vote he plans to get to work immediately on fundraising and hiring a full-time staff.
He also said it’s “way too early” to talk about whether he might run for his old 2nd Congressional District seat in 2020, a possibility he has not ruled out despite his bid for the party chairman position.
With a presidential election also on tap in two years, Pearce said he’s not sure that Donald Trump will ultimately seek re-election and disputed suggestions that New Mexico has become a reliably Democratic state.
“I don’t think anything in American politics is very static right now,” Pearce said.
He also said Republicans will have to embrace being the opposition party for at least the next two years when it comes to New Mexico politics.
“I believe the other side is going to overreach dramatically and it will be up to us to hold them accountable,” Pearce said.
A Hobbs resident who has spent much of his career working in the oilfield industry, Pearce developed a reputation as a steadfast but pragmatic conservative during his time in Congress.
However, he has been soundly defeated in both his attempts for statewide office, including losing to Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham by a significant margin – Lujan Grisham got about 57 percent of votes cast – in last month’s governor’s race.
Meanwhile, Pearce takes over the state GOP reins from Ryan Cangiolosi, who was elected party chairman in December 2016 and said Saturday the party would be in “capable hands” under Pearce’s leadership.
Other Republicans elected to party leadership positions Saturday include: First vice chair Rick Lopez; second vice chair Kelly Zunie; treasurer Vicky Chavez; and Secretary Andrea Moore.
New Mexico Democrats will hold their own leadership elections next spring.