Editor’s Note: SolveClimate News political reporter Elizabeth McGowan traveled to New Mexico to cover the 2010 elections there. This is the second installment in a three-part series. Read part 1.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—An apparently resurgent GOP is intent on upsetting New Mexico’s seemingly shaky Democratic apple cart on Election Day.
Some New Mexico handicappers are predicting Republicans have the momentum to gain at least two or perhaps all three U.S. House seats, as well as the governorship. If a total turnover happens, it would leave only two federal legislative positions in Democratic hands because neither Sen. Jeff Bingaman, in his fifth term, nor Sen. Tom Udall, in his first term, is up for re-election this year.
A three-seat sweep in the Land of Enchantment also would give the GOP a significant boost in netting the 39 seats it needs to wrest control of the House away from the Democrats.
The House contest with the least amount of daylight between the candidates pits two oil and gas entrepreneurs vying for the chance to represent the 2nd Congressional District, an enormous and mostly rural district covering the southern half of New Mexico that includes communities such as Carlsbad, Las Cruces, Roswell and Truth or Consequences.
Several political handicappers are categorizing the race between incumbent Rep. Harry Teague, a moderate Democrat, and former Rep. Steve Pearce, the Republican and a climate change denier, as a “toss-up.” Pearce represented the district for six years before making a losing quest for the U.S. Senate in 2008.
Green groups have rallied around Teague for refusing to duck and cover when explaining his vote for the American Clean Energy and Security Act. But that vigilant support has put the Democrat in the crosshairs of the Pearce campaign, which has hammered Teague as a job killer.
Like Teague, the other two Democratic House incumbents are also first-termers. However, political prognosticators don’t see their races as being quite as tight. For instance, the nonpartisan and independent Cook Political Report says the Albuquerque-centric 1st Congressional District “leans Democratic.” It features Rep. Martin Heinrich, who won with 56 percent of the vote in 2008, against Republican Jon Barela.
The northern 3rd Congressional District, which includes the capital city of Santa Fe, is “likely Democratic,” according to Cook. Republican Tom Mullins is challenging Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, who garnered 57 percent of the vote in 2008.
Despite those predictions, few Democratic incumbents anywhere are feeling safe in this unpredictable election year, when Republicans seem more fired up to cast ballots.
Green Endorsements for Teague
Both the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) and the Sierra Club have endorsed Teague for defending cap-and-trade legislation as a job creator and for his “Do it All, Do it in New Mexico” approach to energy. The Sierra Club has dedicated a staffer to the Teague campaign, and the league has pitched in with mailings and phone calls.
“I think he has done an excellent job of standing by the vote he made,” Tony Massaro, the league’s senior vice president for political affairs, told SolveClimate News. “He understands that it is about a clean energy economy, climate change and national security.”
One of Teague’s first acts as a congressman was to write a bill extending the renewable production tax credit. It was signed into law as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. As a founding member of the Natural Gas Caucus, he is seeking new markets for New Mexico’s abundant resources by promoting the conversion of 18-wheelers from imported diesel fuel to natural gas.
Pearce’s diametrically opposed approach on the subject of tackling global warming earned him early admission to the LCV’s trademark Dirty Dozen list for 2010.
“In his campaign, Teague is doing everything that our data indicate you should do,” Massaro pointed out. “If you’re going to get heat for voting for the American Clean Energy and Security Act, you may as well go out there and be strong in defense of your vote.”
“If you don’t stand by your vote, people accuse you of being a waffler,” Massaro continued. “Voters appreciate politicians who stand by their principles and convictions, and can talk about the substance of why they voted the way they did.”
Pearce Questions Science of Global Warming
In mid-October, Pearce earned the endorsement of Sarah Palin. The former Alaska governor referred to Pearce as a “principled conservative.”
Earlier, Pearce had told Washington-based newspaper Politico that climate scientists should be questioned more thoroughly after the eruption of “Climategate,” which centered on stolen e-mails.
Investigators have cleared Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists of all alleged wrongdoing.
“I think we ought to take a look at whatever the group is that measures all this, the IPCC, they don’t even believe the crap,” Pearce said about his doubts that human activities are warming the planet. “They’re the ones who say in the e-mails we’ve got to worry about this, keep these voices quiet. If they don’t believe it, why should the rest of us be penalized in our standard of living for something that can’t be validated?”
On his website, Pearce refers to cap-and-trade legislation as a “disaster.”
“Lobbyists pick favorites in the energy sector and reward their pals,” he writes. “Meanwhile radical interests work to implement their ideas that will punish New Mexico with lost jobs and higher electrical bills, without even curbing our dependence on foreign oil.”
Familiar Theme Emerges at Sunday Debate
Pearce continued to wield his anti-carbon-regulation hammer during a Sunday, Oct. 24 debate with Teague broadcast on KOAT-TV, the Albuquerque ABC affiliate. The two spent under five minutes of the hour-long question-and-answer session on environmental issues.
Repeatedly, Pearce told listeners that what he referred to as government “over-regulation” and “over-taxation” depress the economy, push jobs overseas, and drive up electricity and gasoline prices by pinching the oil and gas industry.
“Congressman Pearce seems to be obsessed with my votes on the American Clean Energy and Security Act,” Teague said during a debate segment where the candidates questioned one another. “And he is using a lot of discredited numbers to state the effect it will have.”
The bill would not raise electricity prices, Teague explained, adding that it was designed to end America’s reliance on foreign oil by expanding jobs in the renewables industry that can’t be outsourced.
“Probably more than any other bill,” Pearce responded about Teague’s support for cap-and-trade legislation, this one “cut against the grain of the New Mexico economy. I couldn’t believe you made your fortune in oil and gas and turned your back on the industry.”
Same Beginnings, Different Conclusions
Certainly, both candidates understand firsthand the role the oil and gas industry plays in the state they call home. New Mexico ranks sixth in oil production and fourth in natural gas production, according to the state’s nonprofit Independent Petroleum Association.
The industry employs about 15,000 residents and pays above-average wages in a state where the average annual income is $34,000. It also pumps millions of dollars into state coffers.
Teague started working in the oil fields of New Mexico at age 17 for $1.50 an hour. The 61-year-old, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, is the founder and owner of Teaco Energy Services, located in the far southeastern New Mexican community of Hobbs.
Pearce, who also hails from Hobbs, owned and operated an oilfield services firm called Lea Fishing Tools for years before selling it to Key Energy several years ago. The 63-year-old former state legislator flew missions for the Air Force during the Vietnam War, according to his website biography.
Though they have similar backgrounds, their visions for America’s energy future are widely divergent. Though neither campaign office responded to numerous requests for interviews, their public statements offer some insights.
Pearce’s website sums up energy possibilities in three sentences. He calls for bumping up domestic oil and gas production. And while he talks about boosting wind, solar and nuclear power, he doesn’t spell out any specifics. “We can protect our environment and reduce our dependence on foreign oil only if only we just start harnessing all our sources of energy,” he writes.
Teague, meanwhile, puts a bit more meat on the energy bone on his website. He doesn’t shy away from domestic drilling for oil and gas but he also calls for investments in biofuels, nuclear, solar and wind.
“Petroleum and natural gas have powered our country for the good part of a century,” he writes, adding that the nation has to import some 60 percent of its oil because it has less than 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves. “The foreign oil and gas we have depended on for generations has turned into a dangerous addiction.”
New Mexico on the Energy Cutting Edge
As natives of New Mexico, both Teague and Pearce are familiar with a low-carbon vocabulary because they have watched Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson promote a clean energy agenda during his two terms.
For one, state legislators passed an aggressive renewable electricity standard in March 2007. It requires investor-owned utilities to generate 20 percent of their power from wind, solar and other renewables by 2020. Rural electric cooperatives have to meet a 10 percent standard by the same date.
As well, the state legislature is wrestling with a regional cap-and-trade program to curb greenhouse gas emissions. It’s estimated that New Mexico’s power plants and the oil and gas industry spew about 24 million metric tons of carbon emissions annually.
The fate of such legislation might be in jeopardy because term limits prevent Richardson from running again. Republican gubernatorial candidate Susana Martinez is polling ahead of her Democratic challenger Diane Denish.
No matter what happens at the state level, Teague makes it clear he wants to curb emissions nationwide. Though he won his inaugural race in 2008 with 56 percent of the vote, he is a Democratic rarity in a district where Republican presidential candidate John McCain narrowly edged out President Obama two years ago.
By investing in renewable energy, Teague writes, the nation creates jobs, becomes safer, cracks down on global warming and protects the environment “that our children and their children will inherit.”
“A nation that doesn’t depend too much on others is a strong country,” he continues. “And that’s what America needs to be.”
Image: a4gpa via flickr Creative Commons license