COMMENTARY: There’s been a clear Democratic wave in American politics since Donald Trump became president. Don’t expect that trend to propel Democrats to victory in southern New Mexico’s congressional race this year.
Sure, it’s possible Democrats can win the 2nd Congressional District seat in the U.S. House. But it’s likely that another Republican will replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce.
Democrats sometimes asked me during Pearce’s time in the House why their party couldn’t unseat him. The question usually came from the north, where a tea party congressman appears out of touch with New Mexico’s values.
Underneath that question was often a fundamental misunderstanding of southern New Mexico.
Pearce is giving up the House seat this year to run for governor. Lots of Democrats and Republicans are in the race to replace him. While there isn’t yet a frontrunner, former Hobbs Mayor Monty Newman, a Republican, announced a big endorsement Thursday from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz said Newman “has shown his commitment to work tirelessly to promote principles that reflect the values of the people of his district.”
To have a shot at winning, Democrats will have to tap into those values – the libertarian-leaning and morally conservative energy that pervades much of southern New Mexico.
The district is roughly the size of Pennsylvania. It includes the state’s second-largest urban center, Las Cruces, which has become an overwhelmingly Democratic region thanks to changing demographics and strong organizing.
Outside of Doña Ana County, the district is vastly different. People depend on oil, gas and ranching, and many view their jobs and way of life as under attack from the left. There are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the 2nd District – 41 percent to 36 percent. But self-interest trumps ideology.
Democrats nationally are pushing for gun control. That’s a non-starter for many rural folks who are far from a sheriff’s deputy when they need help. A campaign to defend an endangered species or a mesa from ranching or drilling lands with a thud for many whose jobs are dependent on those industries.
The last Democrat this district’s voters sent to Washington was Harry Teague in 2008. The politically moderate owner of an oil company took on the nearly impossible task of balancing his party’s plans with his district’s desires.
It didn’t work. Voters replaced Teague with Pearce in 2010.
Because, in spite of Las Cruces’ growth, this is a rural district. Even if Democrats win the seat this year, they are unlikely to hold it for long. They’d have to make a more intentional and long-term effort to organize throughout the district and build new support systems for people. And the region would have to become less dependent on oil, gas and ranching.
Given the reality of New Mexico’s economy, that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.