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Wealth Vs. Wealth in Pearce’s District

While Rep. Steve Pearce’s victory in the New Mexico GOP Senate primary Tuesday might have boosted the Democrats’ chances of winning the race to succeed Sen. Pete Domenici (R), it was probably the best thing that could have happened for the Republicans’ prospects of holding the Land of Enchantment’s 2nd district.

Pearce and 2nd district GOP nominee Ed Tinsley — the wealthy businessman who won a five-way primary on Tuesday — are expected to campaign together extensively this fall, putting aside any animosity going back to their heated 2002 GOP primary battle for the seat that Pearce won. Tinsley is facing former Lea County Commissioner Harry Teague, a conservative Democrat with equally deep pockets.

Pearce, extremely popular in the southern New Mexico 2nd district, will be leading the ticket on Nov. 4 as the the Republican nominee in the top statewide race outside of the presidential contest. Rep. Tom Udall (D) is favored to win the Senate battle, but Pearce’s position on the ballot is expected to pad Tinsley’s vote total in the majority Democratic yet historically Republican-voting 2nd district.

“Pearce at the top of the Republican ticket helps Tinsley, I think, because it will likely motivate a lot of strong conservatives to go to the polls down south,” said one Republican strategist based in New Mexico. “But if Teague can convince the district that he is as conservative as Tinsley and if he drops a good deal of personal money into the race, he can make this very close.”

With the upheaval caused by Domenici’s retirement — Pearce, Udall and Rep. Heather Wilson (R) decided to vacate their House seats to run for Senate — New Mexico will be a legitimate battleground this fall, and not just because Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) are expected to compete hard for the state’s five electoral votes in the White House election.

Tinsley has the benefit of running in a 2nd district that leans culturally, socially and economically conservative — Las Cruces, a university town in Doña Ana County, is the seat’s only Democratic bastion. The restaurateur and rancher has access to his own money — he loaned his primary campaign $235,000 — and also proved reasonably adept at raising outside funds, bringing in almost $542,000.

Tinsley garnered over 31 percent of the primary vote on Tuesday. Hobbs Mayor Monty Newman finished second with almost 21 percent, retired banker Aubrey Dunn Jr. was third with 20 percent and small-business owner Greg Sowards finished fourth with almost 18 percent.

Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Tinsley is well-positioned to beat Teague not only because of the 2nd district’s political moorings, but because he “ran a strong campaign” focused on the issues voters care about, such as border enforcement and economic growth.

But with Teague winning a close and contentious primary over Doña Ana County Commissioner Bill McCamley (D), 52 percent to 48 percent, the Democrats caught a break. McCamley is more of a conventional liberal, while Teague is described as moderate to conservative.

Teague, an oil-services company owner like Pearce was before he sold his firm, served eight years on the Republican- dominated Lea County Board of Commissioners. And despite being a Democrat, he spent more than three of those years as commission chairman.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which the Tinsley campaign expects will play heavily in the general election on Teague’s behalf, was clearly pleased with the outcome of the 2nd district Democratic primary.

“As a moderate businessman who helped create thousands of jobs, Harry Teague fits the district,” DCCC spokesman Yoni Cohen said.

Lea County is a Republican stronghold, and the path to Congress in the 2nd district has tended to go through that region of the district. Pearce, based in the Lea County community of Hobbs, narrowly defeated Tinsley in the 2002 GOP primary because he won Lea County.

Tinsley is based in Capitan, a small town located in Lincoln County and situated in the middle of the sprawling, 18-county district.

Some GOP operatives following this race expect Teague to win Lea County, although they say Tinsley can still win the election as long as he doesn’t lose the county by too much. Even with Newman, the Hobbs mayor, competing in Tuesday’s GOP primary, Tinsley garnered about 20 percent of the vote in Lea County, leaving his campaign optimistic that he can perform well enough there in November to win.

Teague spent $767,000 of his own money in the Democratic primary, and his campaign made clear that he has no qualms about investing in the general election. Teague campaign spokesman Brad Foster described his candidate as a “common-sense” Democrat who will do whatever it takes to beat Tinsley in a race that Foster expects to be highly competitive.

The Teague campaign indicated that the Democratic nominee will focus on bread-and-butter issues such as jobs and health care affordability.

“Harry has a record of real accomplishment in southern New Mexico,” Foster said. Teague has “created thousands of jobs here, provided health care, helped kids go to college and he’s a good fit for the district. He’ll make his opponent scrape for votes everywhere in the district.”

The Tinsley campaign expects national Democratic money to flood into the district. Tinsley is prepared, his campaign said, although it couldn’t say on Wednesday whether the Republican nominee would spend his own money on the race between now and Nov. 4.

The Tinsley campaign also said it was ready to rebut criticism that the Republican nominee spends nearly as much time at his second home in Santa Fe in northern New Mexico as he does on his ranch in Capitan.

Tinsley campaign spokesman Christopher Maloney, noting such a hit was delivered on Tuesday by the DCCC, said the charge is false. But the DCCC’s Cohen insisted that “Santa Fe’s own Ed Tinsley is out of touch with voters in Southern New Mexico.”

Tinsley’s strategy is to paint Teague as a Democrat who is not nearly as conservative as his reputation, and to press him on how closely he plans to align himself with the DCCC, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

However, Maloney made it clear that while that is one portion of Tinsley’s game plan, his main focus will be on the issues of greatest concern to 2nd district voters.

“Local issues will resonate in this race,” Maloney said. “We feel we can provide a contrast.”

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