Open Seat Gives Democrats a Takeover Opportunity in New Mexico

Nathan L. Gonzales July 17, 2017 · 8:59 AM EDT

With re-election rates often hovering above 90 percent, open seats are critical factor in Democrats’ quest for a House majority. New Mexico’s 2nd District has been an elusive target for years, as long as Rep. Steve Pearce has been on the ballot. But the Republican congressman’s decision to run for governor opens up a majority-Hispanic district that could be vulnerable if an anti-GOP wave develops. 

Pearce’s seat is an expansive district that envelopes the southern half of New Mexico and forms a “u” shape around Albuquerque. The Hispanic population of the 2nd District was 54 percent in 2015, according to the Census American Community Survey.

That's a larger population than the voting age population and the voting eligible population, but the opportunity for Democrats to organize and President Donald Trump to antagonize Hispanic voters is there.

Trump did fairly well in 2016, winning the district 50-40 percent over Hillary Clinton. But Mitt Romney edged President Barack Obama 52-45 percent in 2012, according to Daily Kos Elections.

Pearce was first elected 56-44 percent over Democrat John Arthur Smith in 2002, when he won the open seat following GOP Rep. Joe Skeen's retirement. Pearce represented the 2nd until 2008, when he opted to run for the U.S. Senate but lost in the general election to Democrat Tom Udall. 

Democrat Harry Teague won Pearce's open seat 56-44 percent over Republican Ed Tinsley in 2008 (John McCain won the district 50-49 percent), and held it for just two years until Pearce came back to defeat him, 55-45 percent. 

Democratic strategists have had their eye on the district because of the Hispanic population but talked about the seat as a long-term project. The buzz from the party accelerated briefly when Eddy County Commissioner Rocky Lara got into the 2014 race because she looked like a potentially strong candidate. But Pearce defeated her handily, 64-36 percent, and he won re-election last year 63-37 percent.

New Mexico’s 2nd District could be an example of a seat where the incumbent makes the seat look more comfortably Republican than it really is. Pearce is regarded as a hard-working incumbent who is aware of the demographic changes of his district. Now it will be up to Republicans to nominate someone who can replicate his success.

Even with the open-seat dynamic, Democratic strategists aren’t initially pushing the race to the top of their target lists. But Pearce’s absence, large minority population, and potential midterm backlash against Republicans is enough to push the seat onto the list of competitive districts.

We’re changing our rating of the race in New Mexico’s 2nd District from Solid Republican to Likely Republican. Democrats probably still need a political wave in order to win this district, but Republicans can’t take the open seat for granted.

Leah Askarinam contributed to this report. 

9:33am correction: The original version of the story included the wrong winner of the 2008 Republican primary for Senate.