State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn is dropping out of the race to replace Steve Pearce in Congress, and at this point he isn’t talking about his future plans.
Dunn, a Republican who announced his candidacy for the open 2nd Congressional District seat in July, told NMPolitics.net Monday about his decision to exit the race. He said he plans to spend the next 15 months — the rest of his current term as land commissioner — focused on his job. That office manages 9 million acres of land and 13 million acres of subsurface resources and is charged with making money for public schools and other institutions.
Dunn said he had no other comment.
Since August, Dunn has been in a public spat with the leader of his party in New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez, but whether that was a factor in his decision isn’t clear. The majority of members on the State Investment Council, including Martinez, decided in August to bar Dunn and three others from participating in closed-door meetings because they refused to sign a new code of conduct that would prohibit members from revealing what was discussed behind closed doors.
Dunn explained his action by saying he was concerned about a lack of transparency. When the SIC censured him, he alleged that Martinez and her political adviser Jay McCleskey were playing political games, a charge Martinez’s office denied. Dunn also accused McCleskey of trying to damage his congressional campaign and said it was “well-known” that McCleskey had a role the campaign of former Hobbs Mayor Monty Newman, who’s running for the same congressional seat.
Dunn’s decision to withdraw from the congressional race will have a significant impact, as he was generally considered the frontrunner in the GOP primary. The Republicans remaining in the race are Newman, state Rep. Yvette Herrell of Alamogordo, and Jack Volpato, a former Eddy County commissioner.
The Democrats in the race are David Baake, who once worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council; Las Cruces activist Ronald Fitzherbert; Socorro resident Madeleine Hildebrandt, a Coast Guard veteran and college history teacher; Tony Martinez, co-leader of the Las Cruces Indivisible group; and David Alcon of Milan, the son of a state representative and a political consultant. Former Las Cruces Fire Chief Adolf Zubia was also running but dropped out in August.
Pearce, a Republican, is vacating the congressional seat to run for governor.
The land commissioner seat is also up for grabs next year, and Dunn isn’t saying at this point whether he will seek re-election. That could especially impact Republican Pat Lyons, a former land commissioner and current member of the Public Regulation Commission. Lyons announced in July he was running for land commissioner in 2018 because Dunn was giving up the seat to run for Congress.
Three Democrats are also running for land commissioner: Ray Powell, who Dunn defeated to win the office in 2014; Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation; and Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup.
Dunn has run for the U.S. House seat before — in 2008, the last time the race lacked an incumbent. He lost a crowded GOP primary that year to Ed Tinsley, who went on to lose the general election contest to Democrat Harry Teague.
As land commissioner, Dunn takes credit for diversifying the land office’s portfolio, increasing its asset base and improving conservation efforts.
“By setting the right tone at the top, I’ve worked hand-in-hand with exemplary staff to enhance customer service, direct more money to education and the Land Grant Permanent Fund, and bring a commonsense approach to the conservation of our public lands,” Dunn has said.
Dunn, 61, has gone back and forth about his political future for months. He said last year he planned to run for re-election as land commissioner in 2018. But in May he said the election of U.S. President Donald Trump had turned the political world “upside down” and he was considering running for three different offices — or doing none of that and instead staying home and having fun with his granddaughters.
Weeks later, he announced his now-defunct congressional run.