Rep. Steve Pearce is giving up on an easy walk to an eighth term in Washington and vying to be governor of New Mexico instead. At this writing, he is the only Republican to declare, and it would surprise me if he faces a primary challenge. I make no projections here, but if a Republican is to succeed Susana Martinez in Santa Fe, Pearce is the one I would bet on.
In the party opposite, serious Democrats say they will not to take the race for granted, yet I have seen signs that some are underestimating the congressman. Some assume that a backlash against the GOP is coming; that Pearce is likely to lose statewide as he did when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2008; that reasonable people will examine his record and, in a flash of enlightenment, vote Democrat. These are all dubious assumptions, and yet state Democratic Chairman Richard Ellenberg stood at the Plaza de Las Cruces and said Democrats were “delighted” to have Pearce for an opponent.
Delighted? Pearce has been your opponent for a very long time; and he nearly always beats you.
Some Democrats, it must be said, do take the challenge seriously. In a public social media posting, state legislator Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces) wrote, “Already seeing Dems cheering a Pearce run for governor--as an easy win for Dems in 2018. Please stop. Born and raised in the southeast, and organizing and elected in the southwest, this is serious.”
Pearce has been the subject of stern criticism in this column for his performance as a representative in the U.S. House, but he is exceedingly good at his concurrent job: that of politician, and the term is not meant pejoratively. Politics is an occupation, like it or not. A very good legislator who is bad at politics will lose both jobs. Whatever you think of Pearce as a lawmaker, he is good at politics.
He is an able fundraiser, consistently outperforming average fundraising by House members, raising close to $2 million and above in most cycles. When he ran for Senate, he raised $4.7 million. In addition to a healthy campaign fund, he is adept and personable on the campaign trail, unafraid to converse with people who are angry with him. When he took some scolding in this column and elsewhere for hosting a telephone call-in instead of town halls, the congressman responded by holding a series of them across the district. He listens well, and makes an earnest case for his vision of capitalism and weak government.
This is a formidable candidate and Democrats like Rubio know that. In her post, she continued: “My challenge is to not follow the lead of a national party declaring, ‘We're better than the other guy.’ Our communities need to be compelled to vote for our progressive values.”
In 2016, the national party was “delighted” to have Trump for an opponent, and subsequently failed to tell a compelling ideological story. They lost enough votes in key states that “the other guy” won after all. This major failure cannot be blamed on Russian shenanigans.
Democrats should question how Pearce would lead a divided government, pointing to his record as a member of the House Freedom Caucus during budget crises - but that won’t be enough. They need to tell a compelling ideological story about their values and embrace bold policy proposals in support of that vision.