WASHINGTON – On the night before Tuesday’s mid-term elections, Rep. Steve Pearce couldn’t sleep.
The New Mexico Republican, seeking a sixth term as the state’s 2nd Congressional District representative, was wide awake well past midnight as he crunched voter numbers and worried that his Democratic challenger, Roxanne “Rocky” Lara, might actually pull off an upset victory.
“You can’t get this stuff out of your mind,” Pearce recalled in a Journal interview the day after the election. “I’m sitting down and calculating things, and I thought, you know, things could really turn here. The Democratic Party put a lot of money into their opponent and she had a lot of help from D.C.”
As it turned out, Pearce’s fears were unfounded. The conservative Hobbs Republican not only defeated Lara, a Carlsbad lawyer and former Eddy County commissioner, but he, percentage-wise, racked up the most commanding election victory in the state – and of his congressional career. Pearce won every county in the 2nd Congressional District, even outpacing Lara in heavily Democratic Doña Ana County.
When all the ballots were tallied, Pearce took nearly 65 percent of the 2nd District vote, compared with Lara’s 35 percent.
Until Tuesday’s election, Pearce was the only Republican in the nation representing a district along the Mexican border. When the new Congress convenes in January, he’ll be joined by another: Rep.-elect Will Hurd, a Texas Republican who defeated Democratic incumbent Rep. Pete Gallego (this name has been corrected from print edition) in a sprawling district that stretches from El Paso to San Antonio.
Republicans not only boosted their numbers in the U.S. House, but they captured control of the U.S. Senate, giving the GOP its first congressional majority in eight years.
“The overall mood toward President Obama was very unhelpful (for Democrats),” Pearce said. “We found Democrats swinging our direction. It also looks like most of the undecideds broke in our direction and, normally, undecideds would break against the incumbent.”
As far as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was concerned, the general election in New Mexico’s 2nd District wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.
The House Democrats’ Washington-based political arm viewed Pearce as vulnerable in a district with a large Hispanic population where Democrats outnumber Republicans.
Excited to have a politically moderate Hispanic woman from conservative eastern New Mexico on the ballot, the DCCC got active early in the 2nd District general election campaign. It assigned staffers in Washington to help Lara craft her message and communicate with the media.
Perhaps more importantly, the DCCC helped Lara raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from donors across the nation. In the end, none of it worked.
“If they had asked me, I would have told them to save their money,” said Brian Sanderoff, the Journal’s pollster and a longtime observer of New Mexico politics.
Sanderoff said the sprawling 2nd Congressional District – one of the largest in the nation – looks appealing to Democrats on paper, because their party outnumbers Republicans in voter registration. The Hispanic population, long thought to lean liberal, is consistently growing in the district, as well. But Sanderoff said a closer look reveals that many of those Hispanics are either not of voting age, are not registered to vote or simply don’t go to the polls.
Lara’s campaign focused heavily on immigration reform legislation, such as the DREAM Act, geared at young immigrants, and sought to draw attention to Pearce’s opposition to efforts to allow an estimated 12 million residents who are in the country illegally to become legal citizens. The message may have resonated with some Hispanic voters, but not nearly enough for Lara to win the race or even make it competitive.
“Voter participation levels among Hispanics in the district are not high,” Sanderoff said. “The fastest-growing area of the district is in Las Cruces and that is the Democratic-leaning side of the district. But that isn’t nearly enough to offset the tremendous Republican margins on the east side of the district.”
Sanderoff noted that Pearce beat Lara by a whopping 71 percentage points in Lea County, where his home base of Hobbs is located. He also beat Lara in Eddy County, where her hometown of Carlsbad is located, 75 percent to 25 percent.
DCCC officials did not respond to the Journal’s request for comment on the election results or their campaign strategy. Lara, through a campaign spokesman, declined a Journal interview, but she did issue a concession statement after Tuesday’s loss.
“For fourteen months I had the privilege of traveling the district to talk with folks in every one of the 19 counties to hear their family stories and how we could give them a voice in Washington,” Lara said. “This campaign was never about one person or one idea. This campaign was about fighting for the values and priorities that will move southern New Mexico and our country forward.”
New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District has long been dominated by conservative politics.
Harold M. “Mud” Runnels, a conservative Democrat, held the seat from 1971 until his death in 1980.
Joe Skeen, a Republican rancher and former state senator from Picacho, succeeded Runnels in office by running as a write-in candidate, becoming just the third person to win election to Congress without his name being on the ballot. Skeen served from 1980 until he retired in 2003.
Pearce, a former New Mexico state House member, won election to the seat created by Skeen’s retirement and held it for three terms, until 2008, when he made a losing bid for the U.S. Senate. Democrat Harry Teague, also a Hobbs oilman, won election to the seat that year, at least in part by riding Obama’s then-huge political coattails into office. But Teague lasted just one term. Pearce won his old House seat back in 2010.
The Obama effect
Stu Rothenberg, a respected Washington political handicapper who runs the Rothenberg Political Report, said Pearce’s commanding victory was due at least in part to a national political climate that was brutal for Democrats in this midterm election.
“Pearce is unassailable when the president is a Democrat and has 40 percent job approval,” Rothenberg said. “Look, he’s an incumbent, and he’s won in good times and bad times – and that is noteworthy. But I think when Democrats look at the 2014 numbers they’ll say it wasn’t Rocky Lara – it wasn’t a rejection of her. Nor does it say anything about the long-term prospects of Democrats in the district.”
Rothenberg said the DCCC probably wasn’t truly convinced a Democrat could beat Pearce this cycle, but it wanted to at least show that Democrats could compete in a heavily Hispanic House district they would like to turn from red to blue. Despite Pearce’s pre-election jitters, it’s hard to conclude that the race was at all competitive, based on the final election-night results.
“This was a calculated decision to try to prime the pump in this district,” Rothenberg said. “It didn’t work because nothing worked for the Democrats. Nothing worked. If they thought this district might be trending (in the future), they’ll look again to see about the expanding percentage of the Hispanic population.
“I wouldn’t assume they are going to back off and say that was a mistake,” Rothenberg added, noting that Democrat Teague won the district in 2008.
Pearce easily reclaimed the 2nd District seat two years later after Teague voted in lock step with House Democrats on issues that eastern New Mexico’s oil and gas producers – and many 2nd District voters – found offensive.
Democrats weigh in
Some prominent Democrats in the 2nd Congressional District said the DCCC’s work on Lara’s behalf, while well-intentioned, wasn’t particularly helpful.
Popular Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima, a self-described conservative Democrat, said national messaging strategies adopted by the DCCC that have included environmental and socially liberal voter appeals don’t play well in much of southern New Mexico.
But, to be clear, Lara largely steered clear of those issues, focusing on job growth, immigration reform, education and other middle-of-the-road subjects.
Miyagishima, who is of half Japanese and half Mexican descent, said the Democrats’ national environmental appeals tend to backfire in a district in which many depend on oil and gas to put food on the table. Socially liberal appeals – vocal support for gay marriage, for example – don’t play well among conservative Hispanics, he said. The mayor also said he has considered a run for the 2nd Congressional District seat himself and wouldn’t rule out a run in the future.
“They (the DCCC) have their own ways of doing things and they think they know how to run campaigns,” Miyagishima said. “The DCCC doesn’t know how to run campaigns here. They think what works in Oregon or somewhere else is going to work in New Mexico, and it’s not.”
Christie French, chairwoman of the Doña Ana County Democratic Party, tipped her hat to Pearce’s seemingly tireless work ethic and said Lara didn’t spend enough time in Democrat-rich Las Cruces, which is a 3½-hour drive from Carlsbad.
“I think a lot of her campaign was run by Washington,” French said. “When you would ask her certain things – can you be here, for example – she’d ask if she could get back to you. They don’t always know what works.”
Rebecca Long, a Hobbs insurance agent and Republican who was recently elected to the Lea County Commission, said the reason for Pearce’s success is simple: He works hard, spends a lot of time in the district and – despite his economic status as a millionaire who got rich in the oil business – never forgets where he came from.
“He has worked the oil fields, and he rolls up his sleeves and gets right in the middle of what needs to be done,” Long said. “He understands hard work. He came from nothing, and he understands the American dream. And he is here all the time. We see him here in Hobbs and in Las Cruces – all of this district – all of the time.”
FOR THE RECORD: Rep. Pete Gallego’s name has been corrected in this story.