Pearce, the conservative former owner of an oil-field services firm in Hobbs, has held the southern New Mexico district for 12 years in two stints. Soules, a former General Motors executive of 30 years and Las Cruces resident, is a progressive with an uphill battle in a district that has been a longtime Republican stronghold.
The New Mexico League of United Latin American Citizens hosted the debate Tuesday evening. More than 150 voters packed a Christian fellowship hall to hear the candidates lay out their views.
Pearce described a vision in which the federal government would play a reduced regulatory role in education, health care, and land management. On immigration, he said, “Comprehensive immigration reform means amnesty. … Where is the fairness for those people who wait patiently?”
Soules said the federal government “has a critical role to play” in ensuring standards of excellence in education and health care. Soules said she supports “providing legal status to those who are living in this country in the shadows.”
The sprawling district stretches from the rural Bootheel in the southwest, to the southeastern oil and gas patch, north to Cibola, Valencia and Guadalupe counties. It is mostly Hispanic, with the largest eligible Hispanic voter population of the state’s three congressional districts.
The testiest moment came when the moderator read an audience question about each candidates’ support for the top of their ticket — Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, who has peppered his campaign with disparaging remarks about Mexicans that have irked many Hispanic voters.
The question was a potential minefield for Pearce, who has indicated his support for Trump in the past, but who had been quiet since the release last week of a tape in which Trump is heard making lewd comments about women.
Since the tape emerged, dozens of congressional Republicans and governors — including Gov. Susana Martinez — have disavowed their party’s presidential candidate. Pearce stood by Trump during the debate and reaffirmed his support afterward to the Journal, calling Trump’s comments on an 11-year-old tape about kissing and grabbing women without their consent “horrid” and “indefensible” but reiterated that he “could never support Mrs. Clinton.”
“I have said that I would gladly support Mr. Trump, but I have also withheld an endorsement in order to get his attention in saying that, ‘You have a problem with Hispanics,’ ” Pearce said during the debate. “I am using what little position I have to say, ‘Please get that conversation going.’ ”
Soules, who said she was proud to support Clinton, turned to Pearce and said, “Well, how is that working for you?”