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Pearce confirms he’s weighing run for governor

May 14, 2017 GMT

The Four Corners is far from Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce’s district in Southern New Mexico, but he visited the area last week as part of a barnstorming tour across the northern reaches of the state. Pearce met with hometown politicians to talk about jobs and the economy, all the while looking and sounding very much like a candidate for governor.

Not a single Republican has launched a campaign to succeed two-term GOP Gov. Susana Martinez when she leaves office at the end of 2018. In part, this is because prospective candidates are said to be waiting for Pearce’s next move. Will Pearce stay put, running again in a congressional district where he wins re-election by double-digit margins without breaking a sweat, or will he gamble by taking on much tougher competition in a governor’s race when he is 71 years old?

Pearce, in an interview with The New Mexican while in Santa Fe on Friday, confirmed that he is weighing a run for governor as he holds meetings around the state. He said he expects to make a decision within the next two months.

Two Democrats, businessman Jeff Apodaca and U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, already have launched campaigns for governor. And both seem to be preparing to take on Pearce. Like other Democrats across the country, they also might try to turn the 2018 election at least partly into a referendum on Republican President Donald Trump.

For Apodaca and Grisham, Pearce’s backing of Trump in last year’s election and his vote to support the president’s controversial health care overhaul could be ammunition in the race for governor.

But political insiders say one of Pearce’s biggest selling points may be his willingness to go against his own party at times. And if he runs to succeed Martinez as governor, he also is poised to set himself apart from his fellow Republican, whose approval ratings have declined.

New Mexico’s unemployment rate remains the highest in the country, and the state is teetering on the edge of a constitutional crisis amid a standoff between Martinez and legislators over the state budget. On his tour of the state, Pearce is making an issue of New Mexico’s economy and education system.

“It pretty much breaks my heart to watch what’s happening here with education, with our jobs, poverty, and I just think we can do better,” he said.

Several other Republicans are regularly mentioned as prospective gubernatorial candidates, including Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn and Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry.

In a statement issued Friday, Berry said he has not made any decisions on what he described as his next steps.

“I am dedicated to finishing the job that I was elected to do and I will address next steps once the time is right,” said the mayor, whose term ends this year.

A spokeswoman for Dunn said he is “evaluating all options.”

One political consultant said all eyes are on Pearce.

“Everyone’s just waiting to see what Pearce does first,” said Adam Deguire, a partner at Axiom Public Affairs, who worked on Martinez’s 2010 campaign.

Pearce has been positioning himself to run for governor, Deguire said. If he does, Republicans who might have run for governor could instead seek Pearce’s congressional seat. Republicans also are eyeing Lujan Grisham’s Albuquerque-based House seat. And Republicans must select a challenger to U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, who stands for re-election in 2018.

The board, then, is wide open. Some in the Republican Party say its leaders are trying to steer candidates and donors alike away from bruising and costly primary elections while multiple candidates battle for the Democratic nomination for governor.

The primary election is not until June 2018 and the general election follows in November, but Pearce said Friday he believes a candidate needs about 18 months to run a statewide campaign.

“A decision needs to be made by the middle of the year,” Pearce said. “We’re going around, rather than trying to just jump to a decision, and asking people what they have to say.”

Pearce, now 69, served in the state House of Representatives from 1997 to 2000, when he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate. He won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives two years later. Pearce surrendered that seat to make another bid for the U.S. Senate in 2008. He lost again, and Republicans, drenched in the Obama wave, also lost the House seat Pearce had held. But Pearce rode the tea party’s rise back to Washington, D.C., in 2010, recapturing his old House seat. He has since become known as a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus.

Born in Lamesa, Texas, and a resident of Hobbs, Pearce is a former Air Force captain and the founder of an oilfield services company. He has been reliably conservative on many social, economic and environmental issues. He has generally opposed same-sex marriage, abortion rights and regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

Pearce also has been outspoken in his criticism of federal wildlife officials for reintroducing Mexican wolves in a section of his congressional district, and he fought and won a highly publicized campaign to stop the dunes sagebrush lizard from being added to the federal government’s list of endangered species. The lizard can be found in the Permian Basin, another part of his congressional district and a place where oil is king. Pearce said more protections for the reptile would have put drilling operations at risk.

He has won endorsements from the National Federation of Independent Business and the National Rifle Association while scoring poorly on ratings by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The organization even included Pearce in a 2014 list of members of Congress it says are “leaders of anti-LGBT obstruction and animus.”

Pearce recounts warning the Trump campaign about alienating Hispanic voters and urging a nuanced tone on immigration. But advocacy organizations for immigrants have criticized Pearce, staging protests in his district on grounds that he has blocked a path to citizenship for hardworking foreign nationals. Once, when Pearce was at a museum in Lovington to sign copies of his memoir, immigrants stood outside chanting about their economic contributions to the farms, dairies and oil fields in his district.

For all his conservative stances, Pearce has tried to shrug off partisan labels. His nomination for governor would mark a shift of sorts in the Republican Party, where his backers have been locked in a feud with the Martinez camp. In Washington, the congressman has been critical of proposals to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, which stretches across his district.

He also drops the names of senior Democratic state legislators he has known for years, and he met recently with officials at Taos Pueblo, perhaps one of the bluest spots on New Mexico’s electoral map but one where he had common ground with leaders on issues like housing for American Indians.

And Pearce has homed in on what could prove the central issue of the gubernatorial campaign: the economy.

“We can’t live with such a large group of the population not sharing in part of the prosperity,” he said.

Pearce called for better training in schools to meet demand for workers in technical fields, and suggested the state’s marquee economic development initiatives — the Job Training Incentive Program and the Local Economic Development Act — had not been effective. He said the state should do more to support resource extraction industries such as mining and logging, envisioning economic development not merely as a matter of drawing investors from outside the state but building on industries New Mexico already has.

“People want to be sure that, if their kids graduate from college, they have a reason to stay here,” he said. “… In order to do that, we are going to have to rebuild the economy.”

In San Juan County, jobs were the top concern for many who met with Pearce.

“He didn’t say anything about the governor’s race,” said Drew Degner, chairman of the San Juan County Republican Party.

Instead, Pearce talked mostly about the area economy, which has been suffering because of falling oil and gas prices. It was Pearce’s crowd, raising themes he knew well from his own life in oil country.

But Trump could be Pearce’s albatross.

Pearce embraced Trump early compared to many other New Mexico Republicans. While Martinez remained cool or outright hostile to the future president, Pearce campaigned for Trump.

Trump, though, lost New Mexico to Democrat Hillary Clinton by about 7 percentage points. Pearce comfortably won re-election to his congressional seat in the same election.

Democrats appear eager to make the midterm election a referendum on Trump and, in at least one respect, Pearce has already played into their hands.

After initially opposing Trump’s health care overhaul, the congressman voted for a different version this month. At least one analysis said the bill could lead to more than 250,000 New Mexicans losing their insurance.

Democrats were quick to criticize Pearce.

“Congressman Pearce put his loyalty to Donald Trump and his political ideology before his constituents’ health care,” New Mexico Democratic Party Chairman Richard Ellenberg said in a statement after the vote, foreshadowing what will likely be a recurring line of attack.

Pearce described the bill as imperfect but defended his vote, saying the overhaul will lower the cost of health care for New Mexicans.

“People will judge based on what they see in their premiums,” he said.

Regardless, Democrats are energized by their recent successes in flipping a few state legislative seats in Southern New Mexico.

And if Pearce runs for governor, Democrats would have an opening to take back the congressional seat he holds.

“The risk of losing the seat is there,” Pearce said. “The risk of losing New Mexico is far greater.”

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.