New Mexico Race Surprisingly Close

Posted October 1, 2008 at 6:36pm

In the race for New Mexico’s open 2nd district that wealthy restaurateur Ed Tinsley (R) has been widely expected to win, should he in fact be considered the underdog?

Tinsley’s Democratic opponent Harry Teague, and New Mexico Democrats generally, won’t go so far as to make such a claim. But they are brimming with confidence, suggesting it’s fine with them if others do.

“I think the poll says it all,” Teague campaign spokesman Alex Cole said, referring to a survey released by Teague’s pollster this week that showed the Democrat leading Tinsley by 5 points. “This is the best chance Democrats have of taking back this district in 28 years.”

Republicans familiar with this race did not necessarily dispute Teague’s poll numbers.

But they said the Democrat has serious political problems on the issues of greatest concern to 2nd district voters, and they expect Tinsley to benefit accordingly as the campaign enters its final stretch — particularly in a presidential year in which the GOP presidential nominee is expected to win southern New Mexico handily.

Teague has been on television with three spots since Aug. 19, while Tinsley hit the airwaves with his first ad on Sept. 16. After Tinsley’s advertising campaign gains traction, his campaign expects him to outpace Teague.

“I don’t think voters are going to be fooled,” Tinsley campaign spokesman Jim Pettit said.

The Southern New Mexico 2nd district is solid conservative territory and has been held by a Republican for nearly three decades — outgoing Rep. Steve Pearce (R) is running for Senate.

But the Teague campaign on Wednesday released a poll that showed the wealthy Democratic oil services company owner and former Lea County commissioner leading Tinsley, 46 percent to 41 percent, with 13 percent undecided. The survey of 500 likely voters was conducted Sept. 2-5; the error margin was 4.4 points.

Democrats following this race chalk up Teague’s competitiveness to his profile and Tinsley’s, at times, poorly run campaign. Tinsley ran for the 2nd district once before, in 2002, but he lost to Pearce in the GOP primary.

“I’m increasingly optimistic about this race. Tinsley has done nothing to distinguish himself from the unpopular Republican brand — except taking ‘Republican’ off his yard signs,” said one well-placed Democratic operative based in New Mexico. “And the Teague campaign has done a good job with their paid and earned media as well as a robust field operation.”

Teague is a business owner — apparently beloved by his employees — and based in Lea County, considered key over the years to winning the 2nd district. Pearce and Teague are based in the Lea County community of Hobbs. Tinsley is based in Lincoln County, where he owns a ranch.

Some Republicans agree with the Democratic critiques of the Tinsley campaign. The Republican has donated $500,000 in personal money to his campaign since winning the June 3 GOP primary. But his fundraising from outside sources has been described as weak by some Republicans following the race.

In answering a question as to why this race has been competitive despite the conservative bent of the 2nd district, Pettit noted that Teague has spent $543,000 on his race, compared with Tinsley’s expenditures of just $219,000. Pettit said Tinsley’s plans regarding dumping more personal funds into the race are “fluid.”

He said Teague has been able to raise more money than Tinsley because he a “well- connected Democratic insider” who is close to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D).

“When you look at [Teague’s] TV commercials, he comes across as someone who is a regular, ordinary guy,” Pettit said. “The truth is, he’s made fortune in oil industry [and] flies around in private jet.”

Tinsley is likeable, and on some of the issues that matter most to voters — like the Iraq War, energy and the Second Amendment — is positioned further to the right than Teague and therefore more in line with the 2nd district electorate.

But his campaign has at times has been unfocused and beset by missteps that were the result of mistakes by the candidate and poor management. During the summer, Tinsley replaced his campaign manager as a part of his effort to address these deficiencies. Grant Hewitt, who managed Tinsley’s primary victory, was re-elevated to campaign manager after his predecessor left the Tinsley team in midsummer.

Teague’s campaign was thought to be a less-than-stellar operation during his competitive primary with Doña Ana County Commissioner Bill McCamley (D). But Teague replaced his campaign manager after the primary, and it has been smooth sailing since, according to Democrats familiar with the race.

The Teague campaign and third-party groups sympathetic to the Democratic Party have been hammering Tinsley on issues surrounding his former position as head of the National Restaurant Association, while mining his business activities and the actions of his chain of steakhouses, K-Bob’s, for anything they can use to lessen the Republican’s appeal.

In this regard, Democrats believe they’ve hit the jackpot.

“Tinsley opposed increasing the minimum wage, opposed protecting veterans from workplace discrimination and testified to Congress about his company’s retirement program five months after its charter had been revoked,” said Yoni Cohen, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Tinsley has also been hit by Democrats because he has a home in Santa Fe, outside the district; critics maintain that it is his primary residence.

The Tinsley campaign argued that Democratic attacks on the Republican’s business and professional background are not gaining traction. But what is clearly buoying the Republican’s team is Teague’s position on crucial issues.

On Iraq, the Tinsley campaign said Teague would pay a price for campaigning earlier this year on ending the war and cutting off funding for the troops fighting in that conflict. Pettit said he still has a screen shot from the Teague campaign Web site in which the Democrat promises, if elected, to support an immediate withdrawal from Iraq and cutting off funds for the troops there.

Republicans following this race say Teague’s position on guns is also problematic in a district that in many ways is more akin to West Texas than Central and Northern New Mexico.

“Harry Teague’s opposition to Second Amendment rights and to funding our military men and women in harm’s way are at odds with Southern New Mexico values,” said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.