What Can Republicans Learn From Steve Pearce?

How does a white Republican survive in a border district with a majority-Hispanic constituency?

Rep. Steve Pearce
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
Aug. 14, 2013, 2:46 p.m.

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.”

Im­mig­ra­tion De­bate

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.”

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