SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Republican Congressman Steve Pearce kicked off his campaign for governor of New Mexico on Monday, giving up a firm hold on a vast congressional district along the U.S.-Mexico border.
He is the first to seek the GOP nomination to succeed second-term Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who by law cannot seek re-election in 2018.
Pearce will give up running in 2018 in the congressional district that covers the southern half of New Mexico. It’s one of only a handful of congressional districts along the Mexico border not held by a Democrat. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, is giving up her seat in another New Mexico district to run for governor.
Pearce’s candidacy offers New Mexico voters a Vietnam War-era veteran and former oil man with a conservative voting record during seven terms in Congress.
Pearce said he wants to return from Washington to rebuild New Mexico’s lagging economy and bring better management to public education. The state has the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate and routinely ranks near the bottom in academics and child well-being.
Conservatives have long been drawn to Pearce’s his fiscal conservatism, his support for gun ownership rights, and his opposition to abortion rights and the legalization of gay marriage.
Discussing his bid for governor, Pearce cast himself as a pragmatist who has been able to work across the partisan divide on Capitol Hill — essential qualifications to negotiate with a New Mexico Legislature led by Democrats.
Pearce openly supported the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, who lost to Hillary Clinton by 9 percentage points in New Mexico.
The congressman from the eastern New Mexico city of Hobbs has rejected Trump’s push to build a border wall as impractical and ineffective while voting for the Republican plan to overhaul President Barack Obama’s health care law.
A former Air Force pilot who turns 70 in August, Pearce won his initial bid for Congress in 2002. He served three terms before running unsuccessfully in 2008 for Senate when Pete Domenici retired.
In that statewide race, Tom Udall soundly defeated Pearce, receiving about 505,000 votes to Pearce’s 318,000. Pearce returned to Congress in 2010.
Albuquerque-based pollster Brian Sanderoff said Democrats have a built-in advantage in the governor’s race based on voter registration and long-term voter behavior, without accounting for the political mood at election time or quality of candidates. Martinez succeeded Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson in 2010 amid an electoral backlash against Obama.
Democrats from across the state have piled into the governor’s race. They include attorney and state Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, former media industry executive Jeff Apodoca of Albuquerque and alcohol-prevention teacher Peter DeBenedittis of Santa Fe.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee already has placed Pearce’s congressional district on a list of 79 Republican seats it would target in 2018.
“We’ll run against the Republican agenda in the House,” New Mexico Democratic Party Chairman Richard Ellenberg said. “If they (Republican candidates) want to disown it, fine.”
The district includes conservative strongholds in the oil-rich Permian Basin close to Texas, while its largest city — Las Cruces — leans toward Democrats.
A New Mexico native, Pearce said he has watched with alarm as residents leave the state in search of better economic opportunity — noting all five of his siblings pursued careers elsewhere. He sees room for new economic opportunity in agriculture and in high-tech enterprises that can build relationships with the national weapons laboratories, military bases and research universities in New Mexico.
Before entering politics, Pearce ran an oilfield services firm called Lea Fishing Tools, which he and his wife sold in 2003. Last year, Pearce circled the world in a series of solo flights, piloting a small aircraft.
Pearce has defended his vote for the GOP health care overhaul plan on his Facebook page as a step to “reduce our nation’s deficit, and lifting the financial burden off the backs of taxpayers.”