By Jim Ellis
June 8, 2017 — A statewide New Mexico poll released late last week suggests that US Rep. Steve Pearce (R-Hobbs) is well within the competitive range of fellow US Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-Albuquerque), should the two battle each other in next year’s open race for governor of New Mexico.
In December, Grisham announced that she would not seek re-election to the House, instead declaring for governor. She is the leading Democratic candidate, particularly now since Attorney General Hector Balderas, who would have been a credible gubernatorial contender, announced instead that he would seek re-election and support the congresswoman’s statewide bid. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez is ineligible to seek a third term, and the lack of an incumbent in the 2018 campaign for the state’s top public office has ignited a game of political musical chairs.
Pearce, who represents the southernmost of the three Land of Enchantment congressional districts, and the state’s only Republican seat, confirms that he is considering the gubernatorial race. He was first elected to the House in 2002, and then vacated to run for US Senate in 2008, upsetting his congressional colleague, then-Rep. Heather Wilson (R-Albuquerque), in the Republican primary but losing the general election badly to the state’s third House member, Tom Udall (D-Santa Fe), 61-39 perent. Pearce returned to the House in the 2010 election, unseating one-term Democratic Rep. Harry Teague.
A new Tarrance Group poll (May 20-23; 605 likely Mew Mexico voters) finds Pearce trailing Grisham by just four percentage points, 47-43 percent, a much better initial showing than might be expected because New Mexico voting patterns have turned decidedly more Democratic in recent elections. Hillary Clinton, for example, carried the state, 48-40 percent, last November. President Obama recorded 53 percent (2012) and 57 percent (2008) New Mexico wins in his two national races. The last time a Republican presidential candidate won here occurred in 2004, when President George W. Bush defeated John Kerry.
Pearce could possibly have a clear shot at the statewide Republican nomination, though he still might face major competition. The two other main GOP players are Lt. Gov. John Sanchez and Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry. Sanchez, however, has been making statements about possibly challenging Sen. Martin Heinrich (D) instead of entering the governor’s contest, while Berry has been noncommittal about his future political plans.
The mayor, likewise, has been mentioned as a potential Senate contender, or even a House candidate in Grisham’s open 1st District seat. The governor’s race seems to be the most logical option for Berry, however, who has a strong record as New Mexico’s dominate city chief executive, high name identification, and positive job approval ratings.
While Rep. Pearce is publicly saying he is considering the statewide campaign, his fundraising tells a different story. Though he posts $1.23 million in his congressional account, he did no fundraising in the first quarter of 2017. It remains to be seen if his favorable standing, as captured in the Tarrance Group poll, will spur him into action.