PORTALES, N.M. – Rep. Steve Pearce looks out over the nearly 50 people who have shown up for his town hall at the historic Yam Theater in this eastern New Mexico city and jokes, "Just raise your hands. It's like an auction. If nobody raises their hands, we'll sell and go home."
But Pearce knows he's about to be hammered with questions. This unapologetic conservative lawmaker is becoming a national curiosity. He's the only Republican congressman who represents an area on the U.S.-Mexico border. He's also a white non-Hispanic lawmaker in a geographically sprawling district that is more than half Hispanic.
To some, that paints a target on him. State and national Democrats are trying to cast Pearce as an endangered political species because of the changing demographics in his district. They claim his voting record no longer meshes with the majority-Hispanic population, in a district also where Democrats already have an edge in voter enrollment.
At the same time, Pearce's continued ability to get reelected has some national Republicans saying his brand of conservatism might actually be a guiding light for the party, perhaps even a way to attract more Latino voters.
Pearce, 65, dismisses both calculations.
"The clock is ticking. But not that clock. It's this gray-hair clock that's ticking on me," he laughs about suggestions that his days in Congress are numbered because of the changing demographics. But in the same interview with National Journal Daily, Pearce says he's already warned his own party leaders he will be difficult to emulate or clone, saying he's told them, 'When I'm gone, you're going to have a tough time winning this district.' "
Undeniably, a key aspect of New Mexico's 2nd District is the sheer size of its territory, and that weighs heavily in Pearce's favor. The district covers more than 70,000 (mostly rural) square miles of the southern half of New Mexico, an area larger than the entire state of Florida.
In all, it has 18 counties, stretching north to areas just south of Albuquerque. It is home to Las Cruces, its biggest city, as well as places such as Deming, Ruidoso, Hatch, and Roswell, the city well known for its annual UFO festival, and Billy the Kid's old Lincoln County stomping grounds. There's even the town that changed its name to Truth or Consequences in the 1950s, in order to win a visit from the host of a once-popular quiz show.
But there is no single huge population center. And organizational efforts of any kind take some doing, which can make it tough for a political challenger to take on someone who has been blazing the district's trails for years.
Impediment to Overcome
Pearce is a New Mexico native who was a combat pilot during the Vietnam War and who, after military life, started his own business in the oil-field services industry. Pearce served as congressman from the area from 2003 to 2009, giving up the seat for an unsuccessful 2008 bid for the Senate. But when he lost that race by a large margin to Democrat Tom Udall, Pearce ran to reclaim his House seat in 2010, taking about 42 percent of the Hispanic vote and outperforming what Mitt Romney did at the top of the GOP ticket nationally. He ousted Democrat Harry Teague who, it turned out, had succeeded him in Congress only temporarily.
To hear Pearce explain it, he simply works harder than most others would in this mammoth district. "Each county—18 of them—is its own basic demographic. So, that's an impediment. But it's an impediment I had to overcome. You've got to get out there and make the miles and the hours." For Pearce, those miles are made that much longer because his home is in Hobbs—anything but centrally located—on the Texas border far to the east.
Yet, as his busy August congressional break schedule shows, Pearce holds a determined pace. Just in the past week, he has attended the town hall in Portales, the Lea County rodeo, and meetings in Santa Rosa. There are also office hours and stops in each locale to meet local officials, veterans, and others. There are two more town halls next week in Deming and Las Cruces, locations that also are hundreds of miles away from Hobbs.
Pearce does almost all of this travel by car with staffers, spending much of that time sleeping, working on the computer, and writing thank-you notes. "It's hard to make calls because the cell [service] is dropped everywhere," he says.
Pearce says he works this way because his district is, as he says, "upside down" in favor of Democrats. "So I tell people that it's a little bit like dating a girl on the other side of New York City. You can date her, but you better be on the subway every afternoon, going over there. She'd just as soon find somebody closer."
"If you're there, it's OK. And so Democrats will vote for me if I come out and work hard and show up. But if I am invisible, they'd just as soon vote for a Democrat," he explains. As for Hispanic voters, he says they're not looking so much at political party, but like other voters, "they're looking for people who understand their desire for a better education for kids, jobs, and safety in the streets."
On this day he's driven to Portales for the town hall. There, seniors, veterans, dairy and peanut farmers, and ranchers press Pearce about the stalled farm bill, as well as the Affordable Care Act, a possible government shutdown, and concern over the future of a nearby Air Force Base.
But it's a contingent from the Somos Un Pueblo Unido immigrant group that makes up half of those in attendance. And so, the questions keep coming back to immigration reform and why Pearce, in some views, is not more of a national leader for his party on the issue.
Pearce maintains a mostly likable, even humorous tone, including his repeated insistence on declaring that he is more of a policy wonk than politician.
But some of the reasoning for his firm position against including a path to citizenship in immigration reform is not well received. "I have been to other countries, just recently early this year I was in Africa," he said. "People living on one dollar a day. Now, my heart goes out to those African kids. But shouldn't they become citizens? Shouldn't those African kids with one dollar a day become citizens? Well, maybe they should. But I have to say, probably, we can't feed the whole world. We can't feed 8 billion people."
He adds, "I'm simply saying that a pathway to citizenship makes me very nervous for 11 million people [already here]. I do not understand how we tell the other 8 billion 'no.' "
Pearce explains that he proposes instead to strengthen the border, and that undocumented immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens must first go back home and get in line. But if any of them want to stay and work, under his plan, they can obtain a green card without fines or other penalties, start paying taxes, get protection from government agencies, and not "live in the shadows" or fear exploitation.
The rub is that that green card could never become a red card; there would be no path to citizenship, as the Senate has proposed.
As for securing the border, Pearce tells his audience that more fencing won't work. Rather, he says strengthening security through more sophisticated technology should be the plan.
Pearce gets a bit testy when Marina Piña, 24, of Portales, suggests that Pearce regards undocumented immigrants as a burden to New Mexico and the country. "Don't put words in my mouth," Pearce says, interrupting her in mid-sentence.
Piña responds nervously, yet cattily, "That's true congressman Pearce. You haven't said much. And that's the problem. … What we need is your real leadership on this issue." Other Hispanics in the audience, including some who've worked for years at local farms and for other businesses, also ask Pearce, politely, "Why do you not want us to become citizens?" and "Do you not care about Latino voters?"
At the close of the town hall, listeners leave divided on what they heard from Pearce.
"In our area, this is exactly the message we are looking for," said Keith Thomas, a self-described liberal Republican on the Portales City Council and the president-elect of the Roosevelt County Chamber of Commerce. "The east side of New Mexico typically is a very conservative group of folks—a lot of retirees, a lot of agriculture. And I think we're just wanting straight answers from people representing us, and not acting like politicians. I think we get straight answers from Steve Pearce."
But Marcela Diaz, the Santa Fe-based director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, who was on hand for the town hall, had a different spin. "There's movement in a sense that he recognizes that we need these workers here, in his district, in New Mexico," she said. But she added, "What we think is you clearly recognize us, congressman. You clearly want us here. But you want us to be second-class citizens. You don't want us to have the ability to vote, or to have the permanence or the security of citizenship."
Talking to Democrats
Back in Washington, some GOP leaders, including Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, have pointed to Pearce as someone who is helping the party tap into Hispanic voter support. "When a conservative like Steve Pearce in New Mexico wins in a predominantly Latino district, we need to glean the lessons of his approach," Priebus said in March.
But closer scrutiny of Pearce's formula raises questions about whether many Republicans could—or would—really want to duplicate his approach. For instance, Pearce rarely talks openly about being a Republican. "Because I represent a 34 percent Republican district, I always must be talking to Democrats, so I don't use 'Democrat' or 'Republican' too much out in the open," he said.
He also jokes on the stump about not being able to speak much Spanish, even though he acknowledges to audiences that his mother was a Spanish teacher. Pearce says that even Hispanics tend to laugh at the tale of his determination growing up that he wasn't going to learn anything from his parents—including Spanish—and that when they laugh, they also "forgive" him. The laughs keep coming, he says, when he throws out that his mother keeps asking, "How's that English working for you in that district, son?"
But watching him at a town hall, it becomes clear that Pearce actually knows more Spanish than he lets on.
Pearce is also constantly reminding audiences that he was among 12 Republicans who did not vote in January to reelect John Boehner as House speaker. "Probably the most popular vote I've made, in this district," he says. When he tells audiences he cast that vote, Pearce says he gets, "Always applause, sometimes standing applause."
But there is a clear aim to his leadership bashing. Pearce is working to inoculate himself from anything those party leaders might do that won't play well in his district. In short, he is emphasizing that he is not part of Boehner's inner circle, and has little control over what Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and others might do.
"I don't know what pushes the leadership because I'm not in that group," he told the town hall. "I don't care to be in that group because I'm think I'm an independent voice. I'd rather be independent than be in the leadership clique."
In an interview, Pearce goes on to complain that House GOP leaders "have some timid belief that if they pass immigration reform they're suddenly going to get Hispanic votes. And I'm telling them that's just about as crazy as anything I've ever heard of."
The Border Caucus
Still, as Pearce pitches himself as a savvy independent voice, state and national Democrats say demographics in his district cannot be ignored forever.
"The clock is ticking," says Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., the cochairman of the Congressional Border Caucus, a group of lawmakers from districts along the U.S.-Mexico border, with whom Pearce does not actively participate.
Grijalva is among those who believe that even if Pearce is able to hold onto his seat in the 2014 congressional elections, he won't be able to do so for long thereafter.
Democrats in the district now hold an enrollment advantage that could be as high as 43 percent, and the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics from 2011 show the district is roughly 52 percent Hispanic. Though not all Hispanic residents are eligible voters, the Pew Research Center last fall reported that some 39 percent of all of New Mexico's eligible voters are Hispanic, the largest share in any state.
Some Democrats say Pearce has benefited from weak, underfunded opponents. But this cycle, there is already one Democrat candidate declared to run against him—Leslie Endean-Singh, a Democratic lawyer from Alamogordo—and state Democrats are trying to woo other candidates, including Roxanne Lara, the Carlsbad attorney and former Eddy County commissioner who unsuccessfully sought the state party chairmanship earlier this year.
Whatever special formula the national GOP believes Pearce may have, Democrats note that it did not work when he left his seat to run for Senate in 2008.
"He's very likable, very personable—and he does work hard to get out to see constituents," said state Democratic Party Chairman Sam Bregman. "But if Republicans think Steve Pearce is a model, then they're going to be losing a lot of elections."
This article appears in the August 15, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as How Does a White Republican Survive in a Border District With a Majority-Hispanic Constituency?.