In a boost to House Democrats’ 2004 prospects, Gary King, the son of former New Mexico Gov. Bruce King (D), one of the state’s most prominent political figures, will likely seek the Democratic nomination to challenge freshman Rep. Steve Pearce (R) in the Land of Enchantment’s 2nd Congressional district.
King told Roll Call this week that on a scale of one to 10, the chances of him running stood at about “a nine and a half.”
“It’s pretty certain,” said King, a former state Representative who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1998 and abandoned a second gubernatorial bid early in the 2002 cycle. “There are still people I need to connect with … before I announce a formal candidacy.”
King said he would make a final decision on the race before the end of the month. An attorney with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry who resides in the 1st district ranching community of Moriarity, King is considering moving to Carlsbad, which lies in the southeastern corner of the 2nd district, within the next couple of weeks.
“If it makes sense for me to get a permanent place to live down there then I’ll do that and some of that has to do with business-related decisions and some of that has to do with whether I run for Congress,” he said, noting that his environmental law practice has required frequent trips to southern New Mexico.
Earlier this year, King, who spent two years serving in the Clinton administration’s Energy Department, was also weighing a run in Rep. Heather Wilson’s (R) Albuquerque-based 1st district. But he said this week that he opted for the 2nd district race given his agricultural ties and ideological orientation (the Kings are a prominent ranching family with land holdings across the state).
“It’s a little more conservative,” he said of the 2nd, adding that he saw himself more in the role of “a conservative Democrat.” King supports abortion rights and gun rights.
Though King has yet to announce, national Democrats already appear to be pinning their hopes on the former state Representative, who now serves as chairman of the New Mexico Mining Commission.
“There’s a real sense out there that he’s the strongest candidate that we could get in that race,” said one national Democratic source.
King’s father, Bruce King, 79, is a legendary figure in New Mexico politics and one of the few surviving protégés of the fabled late Sen. Dennis Chavez (D-N.M.). After a stint as speaker of the state House of Representatives, Bruce King served three nonsuccessive terms as governor, beginning in 1970 and ending in 1994.
Along the way, Bruce King defeated another New Mexico political legend, now-Sen. Pete Domenici (R), in his first race for governor. The King family has also produced other elected officials in New Mexico.
Democrats are eager to run a strong challenger against Pearce before he becomes entrenched.
In the 2002 open-seat race to replace retiring Rep. Joe Skeen (R), Pearce’s sizeable financial edge coupled with President Bush’s high-profile assistance helped him handily defeat the socially conservative Democratic nominee, state Sen. John Arthur Smith. At the end of the most recent filing period, Pearce posted more than $400,000 cash on hand, though he still carried a $200,000 debt from his last race.
To date, the only declared Democratic candidate is Jeff Steinborn, who recently quit his job as Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s (D-N.M.) field representative for southwest and south- central New Mexico to run for the seat. Steinborn, a former aide to then-Rep. Bill Richardson (D) and the son of former Las Cruces mayor David Steinborn, formally kicked off his campaign Tuesday and is in the middle of a three-day, 1,600-mile campaign swing through the district.
Although the chances of him running are considered slim, Smith said he’s also considering the race. He said he won’t make a final decision until seeing the results of a district poll — gauging Bush’s popularity — he is commissioning in October. Smith, who criticized the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s management of his 2002 race, said if he enters the 2004 race this time, he’s “not going to march to the drumbeat of the DCCC.”
Doña Ana County Democratic Chairman Bill Barnhouse also criticized the DCCC’s handling of the 2002 race, saying it focused too much on national Democratic issues, such as Social Security, at the expense of local concerns, such as water and border issues.
“The influence the DCCC had on it was to make it a cookie cutter race,” he said.
Also mentioned as a potential contender is state Rep. Joseph Cervantes (D), an attorney from Doña Ana County, though his plans remain uncertain.
Candidates have until Feb. 10, 2004, to file for the 2nd district race.
The yawning 2nd district, which stretches across the southern half of the state, is nominally Democratic — Democrats hold a 51 percent to 35 percent edge in voter enrollment — but also quite conservative. Bush would have beaten Al Gore by 11 points in the 2000 presidential election, and potential Democratic contenders have been careful to emphasize their moderate to conservative credentials.
But Democrats are counting on dissatisfaction over Pearce’s close alignment with Bush’s economic and spending priorities, as well as the higher Hispanic turnout expected of a presidential year — the district has the highest percentage of Hispanics in the state — to help swing the race in their favor.
DCCC spokesman Greg Speed said Pearce, an Air Force veteran, is vulnerable with two key groups, the elderly and veterans — the 2nd is home to both the Hollomon Air Force Base and the White Sands Missile Range — due to his support of Bush administration policies.
“Pearce has failed to deliver on both of those issues [seniors and veterans] by choosing massive tax breaks for people who don’t live in the district over full funding for veterans affairs and a prescription drug plan,” said Speed.
In mid-July, Pearce was one of eight Republican Members in swing districts targeted by DCCC ads, which claimed that their vote in favor of a Republican-backed prescription drug benefit for Medicare failed to address seniors’ needs.
Gail Gitcho, a spokeswoman for Pearce, said her boss is unconcerned about the prospect of a King candidacy right now.
“If he does announce then we would welcome him into the race,” she said. “Right now I think it would only change the dynamic for the Democrats.”
Gitcho said Pearce’s fundraising efforts had been “aggressive” and pointed to a recent event in Alamogordo with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) that brought in $30,000.
Armed with his father’s famous name and Democratic Party connections, King is confident his potential candidacy will attract other high-level support within the state.
“I expect the governor [Richardson] to be supportive of my candidacy,” said King, who is also banking on backing from individuals associated with organized labor, especially those connected to the teachers’ unions.
And it appears that the elder King is itching to get back out on the hustings.
“He [my father] said he’s ready to get on the road and go out and start shaking hands again,” Gary King said.