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Pearcing Decision

Former Member Ponders Political Future in 2010

Undaunted by his 22-point loss in the 2008 New Mexico Senate race, former Rep. Steve Pearce (R) is eyeing a political comeback in 2010, and he’s weighing whether to run for governor or to try to win his old House seat back.

“We feel like we’re in the chase to run for something, but we’re not sure what yet,— Pearce said in a recent interview.

Although Pearce has remained politically active since leaving office at the beginning of the year — he has been crisscrossing the state making speeches and recently helped install an ally as chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party — a successful comeback is no sure thing.

New Mexico just saw one of its most volatile election cycles ever, and by Pearce’s own admission, “we’re just going to have to let the water settle … we need to let it calm down a bit.—

Voters chose a new Senator in 2008 after the 36-year reign of Pete Domenici (R) and elected new House Members in all three of the state’s Congressional districts. Overall, the state swung into the Democratic column with a vengeance, and the political dynamic may simply be too hostile for Pearce to make much headway.

“I don’t know if there are going to be any Republican years here,— said Joe Monahan, a political and business consultant in Albuquerque who writes a blog on New Mexico politics.

The less risky route for Pearce may be an attempt to get his old job back.

Pearce served three terms in the House in the 2nd district, which covers the southern half of the state, winning each time with relative ease. But despite the district’s conservative lean — it preferred Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over President Barack Obama by 1 point in the 2008 White House race, even as Obama was winning New Mexico by 15 points — Democrat Harry Teague was elected to replace Pearce last year.

If he runs, Pearce will clearly be banking on two things: that voters still think he’s the Congressman and that they return to their GOP ways (even though there are more Democrats than Republicans registered in the 2nd district).

Republicans are already trying to soften Teague up by linking him to national Democratic leaders and policies that may not be playing so well in the district.

“The people of the 2nd district would be very lucky to have Steve Pearce represent them and their interests,— said Joanna Burgos, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “In Teague’s few short months in Congress, he has already broken several campaign promises, especially when it comes to fiscal responsibility and job creation; he voted for the pork-laden stimulus and the omnibus bills.—

Because there are not so many obvious GOP contenders for the 2nd district seat, Pearce probably has the right of first refusal among Republicans. If Pearce does not run, the list of possible GOP candidates includes two also-rans from the 2008 primary, banker Aubrey Dunn Jr. and former Hobbs Mayor Monty Newman, as well as ex-Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley, who has been out of politics since 2002.

But Teague is no easy target, and in fact, he and Pearce have many things in common. They’re both millionaires who made their fortunes in the oil business. They’re both from the conservative stronghold of Lea County — meaning Teague can cut into Pearce’s base and still rack up strong totals in Democratic areas. And Teague has thrived in politics as a conservative, pro-business Democrat.

Teague spent more than $3.4 million (half of it from his own pocket) en route to winning 55 percent of the vote in 2008. On top of that, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s independent expenditures in the 2nd district last year topped $1.5 million. For 2010, Teague is part of the DCCC’s “Frontline— program for potentially vulnerable incumbents. He had just $24,000 in his campaign account as of Dec. 31.

But DCCC officials said Teague is already taking steps to secure his position politically, moving around the district, meeting with constituents and advising local officials on how to take advantage of the economic stimulus package that came out of Congress.

“Congressman Teague has worked tirelessly on behalf of his constituents, holding Harry in Your Hometown’ events and meeting with local officials to make sure they get their fair share of federal economic recovery package funds,— said Andrew Stone, a DCCC spokesman. “Congressman Teague’s service to southern New Mexicans, along with what the Albuquerque Journal termed his balanced’ and common sense’ approach, demonstrate why he will be back next Congress.—

Monahan, who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats, conceded that Teague may be at his most vulnerable in his first run for re-election. But he said New Mexicans like their Members of Congress to accrue seniority. And he questioned whether the money would be available for Pearce to run a competitive campaign, noting that the former Congressman has been hesitant to seed his own campaigns in the past (though he does travel the state in an airplane that he pilots).

“Where are you going to get the money for this race?— Monahan wondered. “You going to write a check? Are Republicans in Washington going to give him $4 million?—

Pearce called NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) “a friend— and said he expects to speak with him about the 2nd district race soon.

If the task of running for Congress seems daunting to Pearce, a second consecutive statewide race to run for the open gubernatorial seat could be more so.

As Republicans in the Land of Enchantment contemplate who to run for governor in 2010, they could be faced with a rematch of their contentious 2008 Senate primary, when Pearce edged then-Rep. Heather Wilson (R) by 2 points. The New Mexico GOP has been riven by ideological divisions that date back to the 1976 presidential primary fight between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, and the Wilson-Pearce rivalry is just the latest manifestation.

Many Republicans in Washington, D.C. — and some in New Mexico — felt that Wilson, a moderate from Albuquerque, would have been a stronger general election candidate than Pearce in last year’s Senate race, which was won by the state’s third Congressman, Tom Udall (D). Pearce won the primary largely on the strength of his support from conservative voters, who tend to dominate in GOP primaries.

Like Pearce, Wilson is also thinking of running for governor in 2010. But Pearce could have company on his right flank: Greg Zanetti (R), a leader among Christian conservatives in the state, has already signaled his intent to run for governor next year.

Whoever ends up with the Republican nomination, the frontrunner in the 2010 gubernatorial race for now is Lt. Gov. Diane Denish (D), who already has more than $1.5 million in her campaign account.

Pearce said he isn’t leaning one way or another when it comes to his future options.

“They both have attractions,— he said. “But I think it’s a little bit premature to be having those discussions.—

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