By Caitlin Huey-Burns, RCP
The last part in a weeklong special report, “Hispanic Voters: Trends and Opportunities,” running this week and sponsored by Univision.
When Republicans began looking for ways to win over some of the Latino vote they so badly lost in the 2012 presidential race, their national party chairman pointed to a congressional district that spans the southern half of New Mexico.
The massive and rural district that extends to the Mexico border is something of a rarity these days: The predominantly Latino area is represented a white, conservative Republican. His name is Steve Pearce. In 2012, he garnered over 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to various reports, while Mitt Romney won just 27 percent nationwide.
If someone like Pearce can win big in a place like New Mexico’s 2nd, “we need to glean the lessons of his approach,” Reince Priebus said last March. The Republican National Committee chairman’s comment came after the GOP published a report examining the party’s presidential loss, in particular its 44-point deficit among Hispanics.
Pearce’s approach is grounded in significant constituent outreach and travel throughout the expansive district, and the connections he has cultivated during his decade of service there — the kinds of key relationships Republicans hope to, and need to, forge in similar communities.
But a deeper dive into the district and its nuances reveals that Pearce’s approach to (and showing among) Latino voters isn’t easy to replicate in other areas. And it may not even be lasting in NM-2.
Since Pearce’s last election, the debate over immigration policy and border security has intensified on the national stage as well as in his district. As Republicans hold up Pearce as a model, Democrats see a district ripe for the taking — perhaps not now, but eventually. The demographics (including unmotivated or unregistered voters) could combine with Pearce’s conservative votes on key issues to create favorable territory, Democrats say.
That may take at least another cycle or two. For starters, the area leans conservative — John McCain and Mitt Romney carried it in 2008 and 2012, respectively. Congressional Republicans have held it for several decades, with the exception of 2009-2011 when Pearce left the House to wage an unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid and Democrat Harry Teague replaced him. Pearce ran again in 2010, defeating Teague by 10 points.
Pearce also has all the advantages of incumbency. But the congressman’s ability to win that hefty percentage of the Latino vote could be put to the test this year when he faces a Latina Democratic challenger, Roxanne “Rocky” Lara.
“It’s really hard to assess the demographics in light of the overwhelming advantage of the incumbency,” says Joe Monahan, a longtime New Mexico political analyst. “In Pearce’s case we’re going to have to keep peeling the onion. This is the first real Hispanic challenger he’s had.”
Lara, a Carlsbad attorney and a former Eddy County commissioner, has an uphill battle, to be sure. The race is rated “likely Republican” by political forecasters, including RCP. But she is better funded than past Democratic candidates and could present a formidable challenge to Pearce’s showing among Latinos if she is able to spend enough time stumping throughout the vast district and put enough money into ad campaigns. (Lara had raised over $900,000 through June 30, dwarfing the amount Pearce’s 2012 opponent garnered. But she nonetheless lags behind the incumbent, who had raised more than $1.4 million by the end of June.)
So far in August, Pearce has held 30 public meetings and driven 4,000 miles in one of the largest congressional districts in the country, according to his staff. During the current legislative recess, he toured an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Artesia, and had more than 50 media interviews or press stops.
Pearce was born, raised, and educated in New Mexico, where he grew up poor but later became successful in the oil industry there. While in the district, Pearce touts his vote against John Boehner as speaker to show his independence from Washington and party leaders.
“Pearce is a very conservative Republican, Tea Party-oriented congressman who does not immediately appeal to the Latino community with where he stands on the issues,” says Monahan. But the congressman’s success “is indicative of his constituent services. … He travels extensively in the district.”
Lara “might be playing something of a long game in this district: Run a decent race this time, and then come back in 2016 with a bigger, more pro-Democratic electorate,” says Kyle Kondik, who studies congressional races at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Democrats cite her often as a strong candidate, but the environment and the district fundamentals … probably make this a bridge too far for 2014.”
The Democrat is campaigning against Washington dysfunction and, echoing many challengers this cycle, she says her opponent “is part of that problem.” Lara points to his votes on the budget that led to the government shutdown last year (New Mexico is heavily reliant on the federal government) and his vote for the Republican budget that would make changes to Medicare.
Since the district leans conservative, Democrats say their candidate has to be in the moderate mold and talk more about bipartisanship than party loyalty. Lara is running as a “Blue Dog,” a breed of fiscally conservative Democrats who are nearly extinct on Capitol Hill.
Democrats know they cannot depend on demographics alone to win in NM-2. The area is home to generations of Hispanics who are culturally and fiscally conservative and who aren’t going to be moved overnight on immigration reform policy. And the expansiveness of the district makes messaging difficult. It’s predominantly rural, without major city centers or hubs. That’s why Pearce’s connections go far in the state.
“A sizable percentage of the Hispanic families in New Mexico have lived in the state for many generations — often longer than the state has actually been a state,” says Pearce consultant David Hazelwood. “They see issues through a different lens.”
Though Democrats argue that Pearce is becoming too conservative for the district, they haven’t been able to effectively organize there and register voters. Roughly 52 percent of residents are Hispanic, but only 35 percent (by one estimate) are registered to vote.
On the campaign trail, jobs and the economy take center stage, Lara says. But immigration reform, while not necessarily atop voters’ list of concerns, is becoming more of an issue.
“Southern New Mexico is feeling the impact of our broken immigration system every single day,” Lara said in an interview. (She advocated for the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration reform bill.) “Because Washington keeps kicking the can on this issue, we’re feeling the impact here in the district [in terms of] border security and undocumented immigrants working in the district.”
Marcela Diaz, the spokeswoman for the immigration group Somos Un Pueblo Unido, which frequents Pearce’s town-hall meetings, says that grassroots activism had been lacking until recently.
“Latino voters who are there [have been] disconnected, disenfranchised, not seeing viable alternatives,” she said. But efforts by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez — a Latina viewed as a GOP rising star — to repeal a law that grants driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants has helped awaken an activist base.
Pearce opposes comprehensive reform legislation that would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and he opposes the DREAM Act — which would offer a route to citizenship for children brought to the U.S. illegally — in its current form. These stances have earned him the ire of groups like Somos Un Pueblo Unido.
The incumbent has positioned himself as a seeker of middle ground on immigration policy. He has proposed a guest-worker program that would allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the country, but without the prospect of citizenship. And in an interview with the New York Times last year, Pearce said he was looking for ways to eventually support the DREAM Act if legislators could offer the citizenship opportunity to children in a way that didn’t encourage more to do so.
Last year, with Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke, he introduced legislation designed to help keep immigrant families together. But the citizenship component is still a central concern to immigration groups and Democrats eyeing the district, who cite the growing number of Hispanics drawn to the region for jobs in the booming oil industry as well as in agriculture. To combat images painted by Democrats as extreme, Pearce’s camp points to his support of the Violence Against Women Act and a recent bipartisan student loan bill. After the government shutdown, Pearce’s office said he gave back the salary he made during that time.
Republicans in the state also praise Pearce’s candor when it comes to his constituents.
“Steve has been extremely aware of the lack of immigration policy,” says New Mexico GOP Chairman John Billingsley. “They tell him what they are looking for and he says here’s my experience. … Though they know he is not going to vote the way they like to on a particular issue, they respect him for his honesty and for being forthright, and they come to understand maybe there’s another way to look at it.”
While national Republicans may hold up this district as a model for Hispanic outreach, Pearce and other party members there insist that broader lessons can be learned. “I don’t think it has a lot to do with Latino votes,” says Billingsley. “It has more to do with being involved deeply in the district, and willing to spend the time it takes to talk to the person.”
Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics.