Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Rep. Xochitl Torres Small calls helping the 2nd Congressional District through the COVID-19 pandemic the biggest challenge of her first term.
The Democratic congresswoman said the pandemic has exposed many of the challenges the district faces even in normal times, including helping to keep rural health care facilities open and keeping small businesses thriving.
“It’s amplified those issues that I ran for Congress to address in the first place,” Torres Small said.
She faces a rematch in her bid for reelection. Torres Small defeated Yvette Herrell by less than 2 percentage points in 2018, flipping a traditionally Republican seat. Also running this year is independent write-in candidate Steve Jones.
The race has attracted national attention as Democrats try to hold on to the gains of their 2018 blue wave while Republicans view the district – which President Donald Trump won by 10 percentage points four years ago – as a prime pickup opportunity.
Crossing the aisle
Torres Small, who worked as a water rights lawyer in Las Cruces, has campaigned as an independent-minded Democrat willing to work with Republicans to serve her constituents. She has repeatedly touted her willingness to stand up to her party on behalf of oil and gas workers, for example. And Thursday, she was critical of Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s remarks about the industry during his debate with Trump.
Gabriel Sanchez, a professor at the University of New Mexico and a pollster for Latino Decisions, said the race, like many other congressional campaigns across the country, has taken on a national tone, with Republicans linking Democrats in swing districts to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Torres Small, in turn, has highlighted her disagreement with prominent Democrats and noted her membership in the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.
“She’s trying to thread that needle of being a moderate Democrat who, on key issues for the district, she’ll part from her party,” Sanchez said.
Torres Small had a financial edge heading into the final weeks of the campaign. In her most recent quarterly report to the Federal Election Commission, she reported about $2.3 million in new contributions and nearly $1.9 million in cash. Herrell had $1.0 million in contributions and $514,000 cash.
Health care work
In an interview, Torres Small, 35, said she has worked hard on legislation involving rural health care, including efforts to address doctor shortages and attract residencies.
Another priority, she said, was securing funding for medical facilities such as Gila Regional Medical Center through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
“The biggest thing that I am proud of is, in the midst of all of this division, I have found ways to build common ground, to work with everyone, Republicans and Democrats alike, to find ways to deliver for New Mexico,” she said.
One focus, she said, was helping small businesses amid the pandemic.
Problems with the initial rollout of the Paycheck Protection Program caused many businesses to miss out on the first round of funding. Torres Small said she pushed for a streamlined application process when additional funding was approved and recently sponsored legislation to simplify the loan forgiveness provision of the program.
The 2nd Congressional District spans the southern half of New Mexico, including the oil fields of the Permian Basin, New Mexico State University and communities along the Mexican border.
Torres Small said she takes seriously her responsibility to “represent all of our neighbors in the district, whether it’s about recognizing the economic engine that we have in the southeast or the legacy of farming that we have in the Mesilla Valley or the new opportunities for tech with Facebook in Valencia County.”
“I know New Mexico has depended on our energy industry, and if we were to stop fracking today, we’d have to close our schools tomorrow,” she said. “Unfortunately, not all of New Mexico understands that.”
Torres Small has touted her record securing funds for infrastructure projects in the district and a pragmatic approach to improving border security.
“When I was running for Congress, the biggest thing I heard about when I was visiting the southeast part of the state was the dangers of the roads … and the needs for investments in infrastructure,” she said. “I’m proud that I was able to get $12.5 million for roads in southeastern New Mexico.”
Torres Small, meanwhile, has faced something of a balancing act with the president. Trump won the 2nd Congressional District handily in 2016 and had a 4-point lead in a survey conducted for the Journal by Research & Polling Inc. in late August and early September.
Torres Small supported Trump’s impeachment, but she also has touted her cooperation with his administration on other issues. In a televised debate this year, she said that while she’s ready to work with anyone, that “doesn’t mean being a pushover.”
She has noted her support for a trade agreement promoted by Trump.
“In terms of making sure New Mexicans get a fair shot,” she said, “I’m proud to work with President Trump, as well as Congress, to get the USMCA (United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement) to the finish line so that our farmers could continue to expand their trade in the midst of these challenging times.”
Torres Small hadn’t held elective office before winning the 2018 general election, but she had previously worked as a staff member for U.S. Sen. Tom Udall and clerked for a federal judge in New Mexico. Her husband is a legislator, Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces.
Torres Small said she ran for Congress because “New Mexico south of I-40 has been ignored and underserved for far too long. We’re asked to do way too much with far too little.”
Dan McKay contributed to this report.