Democratic Rep. Harry Teague talks with farmer Dickie Ogaz near Hatch, N.M., on one of Teague's many campaign trips in the state's 2nd District.
Democratic Rep. Harry Teague talks with farmer Dickie Ogaz near Hatch, N.M., on one of Teague's many campaign trips in the state's 2nd District. Ben Bergman/NPR
There are approximately 50 House seats in play this election season, and almost all of them are held by Democrats — including the conservative Democrats who won in Republican districts in 2008, making a Democratic majority possible. Republicans need 39 switches to regain control; one of the battleground districts is in southern New Mexico.
Steve Pearce served six years in Congress, then ran for the Senate and lost. Now he's hoping to recover his old House seat, held by Democrat Harry Teague.
Both candidates are conservative; both made money in the oil business; and they're from the same town, Hobbs. They're also dead even in the polls.
The Former Incumbent, Now Challenging
On Saturday, Pearce was stumping the state, taking in a bluegrass festival at the tiny mountaintop village of Weed.
The bands played in the old high school gym, where spectacular mountain views could be seen through doors open to catch the breeze. Between bands came a bit of unscheduled politics.
Pearce's main message — aimed at New Mexico's independents and conservatives in both parties — is that Republicans should be in charge.
Steve Pearce listens to constituents at the Otero County Republican ice cream social, where he pressed the flesh of voters he wants to once again represent.
Steve Pearce listens to constituents at the Otero County Republican ice cream social, where he pressed the flesh of voters he wants to once again represent. Ben Bergman/NPR
A few handshakes and Pearce was on his way, wandering around the mountains for a while before arriving at the Otero County Republican ice cream social at the Mesa Verde Ranch in the valley.
In a room at the ranch house, Pearce spoke about the challenge of this comeback.
"The incumbent always brings a lot of advantages, and that's the biggest challenge," he said, acknowledging that he once had those advantages himself.
Pearce can't argue that he's a new face — having spent six years in Congress — but he thinks there's a lot of anger among voters and that it will work for him.
"The independents are basically walking away from the policies of the Obama administration and of Nancy Pelosi," Pearce said. "People are going to say this is not the direction we want the country. We want to see something for jobs; we want to see unemployment decrease; we want to have a sense of comfort about what the future might bring, and right now there's deep anxiety about the future."
Asked whether he thinks Americans can be persuaded to blame President Obama for the situation in which they find themselves, Pearce says, "I think the American public has decided, and they're furious."
Teague has another view. He believes New Mexico voters will remember how angry they were last time, when the state voted out all of the Republicans in its congressional delegation.
"I think a lot of people are going to have a good memory of how things were" when Democrats took control of Congress from Republicans, he said.
"We went from losing a half a million [jobs] a month to having a positive increase every month. I think most people are aware of that and will vote accordingly," Teague said.
Making The Rounds With Voters
Teague makes a big point of talking to voters — this is the sixth largest district in the country, and he roams around it almost every weekend.
Dickie Ogaz's farm near Hatch is in the lower Rio Grande valley, which is famous for the long, green New Mexico chili. Ogaz ships tons of it every year.
Small intimate visits with voters like Ogaz are Teague's main weapon in this battleground district. This past weekend, he heard from Ogaz about the cost of irrigation and from other farmers about dredging waterways.
At breakfast, he talked with Alamogordo business people about contracts at Holloman Air Force Base. And he had lunch with veterans at Margo's Mexican food, where the conversation veered from rehabbing historic forts to strong feelings about illegal immigrants.
One of the veterans at lunch, Air Force retiree Dick Warner, says he's a Republican, but he prefers Teague.
"I'll probably vote for him, because I don't see anybody running against him that has done any better toward the veterans," he said. "Pearce, when he was in, as far as I'm concerned, didn't do nothing for anybody. And Congressman Teague has done a lot for the veterans."
The most powerful woman in Washington, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, cannot count on Teague's vote, but he is one of the reasons the Democrats have a majority in the House. He voted against health care but for financial reform. Teague said his votes match his district.
"What I've done is I've represented the 2nd District of New Mexico — not the Democratic Party and not the leadership in Washington, D.C.," he said. "When the speaker is wanting things that are not compatible with the 2nd Congressional District, I have told her ahead of time that we can't support it."
Teague and Pearce are almost a model of the midterm election, asking voters whether they want the Congress they have now or the one they had before.