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Challenger Seeks Return of 2nd District

By Rene Romo
Journal Southern Bureau
          LAS CRUCES — Republican Steve Pearce wants to return to his former job, representing the 2nd Congressional District, and like many GOP candidates, he is hoping to ride an angst-fueled voter backlash against Democrats to a win in November.
        Whether Pearce, who held the seat for three terms until his failed bid for the U.S. Senate in 2008, can convince voters he should replace first-term incumbent Rep. Harry Teague in the southern New Mexico seat in the U.S. House is uncertain. The Journal Poll and other recent surveys have found the two candidates in a neck-and-neck race.
        "I think that we are seeing, just as the timing was bad in 2008 (for Republicans), timing is bad for the other side now," Pearce said.
        Teague said he hopes voters see things differently.
        "You know, when I got into office last year, the country was in the worst economic crisis it had been in since the Depression. The Democrats did not create that," Teague said. "That was there when we got there. But I understand people's frustration. I'm frustrated, too."
        Democrats, sensitive to the charge their party has failed to reverse the economic and budgetary mess weighing the country down, have urged voters not to give Republicans the "keys back" to Congress. After Pearce jumped into the race last year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a press release saying, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
        The 2nd District, covering all of southern New Mexico and extending north through Valencia County, has long leaned toward Republicans. Teague is the first Democrat to win election there in 28 years.
        The challenge for Teague is cobbling together enough support from voters on the left and right to win re-election.
        Sorting them out
        Teague angered many on the left when he voted against the federal health care overhaul, arguing it would not do enough to lower costs.
        But Teague also voted for the failed cap-and-trade legislation aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions that the vast majority of climate scientists say contribute to global warming.
        Pearce has said it was that vote, unpopular among many in the southeastern New Mexico oil patch, that in part persuaded him to run for Congress again.
        Pearce has hammered away at Teague over what the Republican calls the "job-killing" effects of the cap-and-trade legislation. Teague insists the legislation would not have harmed small oil refineries or rural electric co-ops, and would have spurred alternative energy production domestically and reduced the nation's reliance on foreign oil.
        Jose Z. Garcia, a New Mexico State University government professor, said the biggest challenge for Teague and Pearce may be drawing sharp distinctions between each other in a district with strong conservative roots.
        The opponents share a number of things in common: Both claim humble roots in the state's oil patch in the southeastern corner. Both call Hobbs home. Both became wealthy by running companies involved in the oil industry. Both portray themselves as fiscal conservatives and strong supporters of gun rights.
        "The candidates are so similar, it's kind of like asking the voters to choose between Coke and Pepsi," Garcia said.
        Both Teague and Pearce have tried to present themselves as the candidate best in tune with the conservative-leaning district.
        Teague's 12-point victory over Republican Ed Tinsley in 2008 marked the first time a Democrat was elected to represent the district since the death of Rep. Harold M. "Mud" Runnels, a conservative oil-patch Democrat, in 1980.
        Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in the district — 47 percent to 35 percent, with another 16 percent registered independent or without party affiliation — but the district was the only one in the state that went for Sen. John McCain over President Barack Obama in 2008.
        Common ground
        The two also share similarities on several policy issues.
        Both Pearce and Teague support extending Bush-era income tax cuts, due to expire at the end of the year, for Americans making $250,000 per year or more.
        After the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, neither Teague nor Pearce supported the Obama administration's moratorium on deepwater drilling.
        Earlier this summer, Teague and Pearce separately said they supported a failed Senate resolution that would have curbed the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to draft rules under the Clean Air Act to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other major sources of pollution.
        And neither has embraced pending legislation, sponsored by the state's two Democratic senators, that would designate several wilderness areas in Doña Ana County. Both cited concerns that one proposed wilderness area near the Mexican border could attract illegal border crossers and drug smugglers by limiting the Border Patrol's ability to pursue suspects in motorized vehicles.
        Pearce opposes the wilderness bill outright, while Teague has withheld his support even though the legislation was amended to gain the support of Border Patrol officials.
        Parting ways
        Despite their similarities, there are differences.
        Teague is considered a moderate Democrat. National Journal magazine rated him one of the most centrist members of the House.
        Pearce, who often speaks of his Christian values and has courted Tea Party voters with talk of "standing in the gap" to protect the Constitution, was a reliable Republican vote when in Congress. Pearce, who said he does not think much of politicians who criticize party leadership, also said he often voiced disagreements behind the scenes.
        While Teague is not considered a champion of environmental causes, Pearce has been the target of negative ads from the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund fueled by his record on environmental issues. During a recent debate, Pearce criticized a budget increase for the Environmental Protection Agency, saying, "They are in the business of killing American jobs."
        Pearce in 2007 sought to cut off funding for the 12-year-old effort to recover the endangered Mexican gray wolf in the forests of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona. In a fiery speech, he warned that those who did not join him would have "blood on their hands" if a wolf ever claimed a human victim. The divisive issue generally pits ranchers and rural residents in Catron, Grant and Sierra counties against city residents in Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Silver City.
        In a recent interview, Teague expressed no opposition to the recovery program.
        Pearce supported opening up the Otero Mesa in southeastern New Mexico to oil and gas drilling, while environmental groups, Gov. Bill Richardson and even then-Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said a study on the effect of drilling on a major aquifer should be conducted first. Teague in 2008 also said the Bureau of Land Management should block drilling on Otero Mesa until the aquifer study was completed.
        On immigration, both candidates have supported beefed-up security at the Mexican border, including sharp increases in the ranks of the Border Patrol.
        Teague, however, favors comprehensive immigration reform, including a way for certain undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status in this country. Pearce is a staunch opponent of "amnesty."
        "People who come here without documentation, if they want to be a citizen, they should go back home and get in the 20-year line," Pearce said in a debate. "I do not think that a pathway to citizenship — amnesty is what it's called — is productive for securing the border."
        In an interview, Teague said: "We need to stop making campaign slogans about those poor people and our porous border and start fixing both of those things."
        The two candidates have tangled over proposed legislation that would offer children brought to this country illegally by their parents a path to citizenship if they complete a university or college education or serve two years in the military. Teague has voiced support for the measure, while Pearce has opposed it, arguing it would encourage illegal immigration.
        Economy debate
        While both men paint themselves as fiscal conservatives, Pearce has criticized Teague for his votes on economic stimulus spending bills.
        Teague and the state's two other Democratic House members voted in January 2009 for an $819 billion stimulus bill that included money for such things as highway construction projects aimed at creating jobs, along with increased funding for unemployment benefits and food stamps.
        Pearce, in his last year in office, voted against the $700 billion TARP bailout funding proposed by President George W. Bush, and he says that less regulation and lower taxes would stimulate the economy. In an interview, Pearce said, "I don't believe government should be bailing out business. The economy works if we allow it to."
        Pearce, while in Congress, supported several efforts to curtail abortion. He describes himself as "100 percent pro-life" and opposes federal funding of abortion.
        Teague has said that, although he is personally opposed to abortion, it is a personal choice that should be left up to a woman to decide. He opposes using taxpayer funds for abortion, and he angered abortion-rights advocates in 2009 during the health care debate when he supported an amendment to prohibit private insurers from providing abortion coverage if their customers received federal health care subsidies.

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