One of the more interesting races this fall in New Mexico is the one between Steve Pearce and Harry Teague for Congress in New Mexico's conservative-leaning District 02. Here's why.
1. Both candidates have held the job. Pearce won the CD02 job in 2002, after Joe Skeen stepped down, beating state senator John Arthur Smith in what began as a tight race and then ended in kind of a whimper when Smith ran out of money three weeks before the election. A then-popular President Bush campaigned for Pearce at a huge event in Alamogordo and Pearce came in with a 12 point advantage. Pearce held the seat during the Bush years until he stepped down in 2008 to run for the Senate seat vacated by Pete Domenici (he lost to Tom Udall). Joseph Cervantes jumped into the CD02 race and seemed like a shoe-in until he dropped out, for family reasons, in late December. Parenthetically, I announced I would run for Cervantes' New Mexico House seat, since he would have to vacate it to run for the U.S. House, but I dropped out of the running after Cervantes dropped out of the CD02 seat. The decision by Domenici to drop out of the Senate caused a whole chain of droppings in and out.
With Cervantes out of the race Teague, a wealthy man with connections, had no difficulty winning the Democratic Party primary race and was swept into CD02 by the Obama tsunami of 2008.
So Pearce has actually occupied CD02 for a longer time than Teague: the advantage of incumbency, is therefore diminished; both will be perceived as more or less equally experienced. This is a huge factor, when you consider that in most years well over 95% of all incumbent congressmen and women get re-elected. Add to that the widespread feeling that this is an anti-incumbent year, and you can see that the issue of incumbency in this race is complicated.
2. Both are from Hobbs, NM, and grew up with Diane Denish and Richardson buddy Johnny Cope. Teague owns or owned an airplane with Cope, which they loaned out to Richardson during his presidential bid. All are about the same age, early 60s. Teague and Pearce owned oil-related businesses across the street from one another. Both started out in Hobbs with no money and both made out very well in life, financially. Both are conservative in temperament as well as ideology. Both have pretty much the same set of beliefs and values as most businessmen in the district.
Up to here there is little to distinguish one from another, as demonstrated by the Sanderoff poll a couple of weeks ago showing the two to be within the margin of error, with Teague up by 3 points.
3. If the national scene favored Teague in 2008, it would seem to favor Pearce in 2010. The local partisan scene, however, tilts toward Democrats. Disgust with George Bush was reaching record levels two years ago, a factor which helped create a huge swing in both the Senate and House in favor of the Democrats. But today, polls show unhappiness with Obama, whose approval rating is now in the low-to-mid 40's, not nearly as lethal as the 27% Bush had at the end of September, 2008, but still pretty low. Worse, the approval rating for Democrats in Congress last month in a Gallup poll was 33%, and 32% for Republicans. At first glance this might seem to be equally bad for Pearce and Teague, but most observers feel these numbers, combined with the strong success of the Tea Party advocates, suggest voters are in the mood to toss out incumbents. This would be bad for Harry Teague, since evidence suggests voters are clearly aware he is a Democrat. On the other hand, demographic trends in CD02 tend to favor Democrats, who outnumber Republicans by 47% to 35%. Democrats in CD02 tend to be pretty conservative, but this is not as pronounced as it was a decade ago, and the overall ratio of Democrats to Republicans has been moving in the D's direction in recent years, so Pearce is unlikely to be touting a highly Republican partisan identity, although he is likely to be joining in the chorus of Republican policy complaints against the Democrats in Congress.
Bottom Line: Teague is likely to emphasize his hard work (no one doubts the grueling schedule he has maintained) on behalf of constituents, his success in bringing bacon to New Mexico, and his likability, which is high. He is very unlikely to talk about the advantage he now holds as a Democrat in a Democratically-controlled House, since current projections suggest the Democrats might well lose control of the House by a margin of 5-10 seats. Pearce is likely to surf on the strong wave of sentiment against Congress, and against the President and national direction, while emphasizing his previous experience as a congressman. This one is hard to predict.