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A familiar race in NM’s 2nd Congressional District

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Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

If this year’s U.S. House race in New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District seems familiar that is because it is.

U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-NM, speaks to attendees at the Democratic Party of Chaves County’s Pre-Primary Convention Jan. 25 at the Fraternal Order of Eagles in Roswell. (Daily Record File Photo)

Two years ago, Democrat Xochitl Torres Small and Republican Yvette Herrell faced off in one of the most-watched congressional races in the country. The race was wide open on both sides after Congressman Steve Pearce, a Republican, opted not to run for another term and instead make a bid for governor.

Despite the overall Republican lean of the district, which runs from southern Bernalillo County down to the Mexican border and spans the width of the state, polls and fundraising totals portended a close race.

On Election Day 2018, Herrell was initially declared the winner. However, that changed after a batch of uncounted absentee ballots was found in Doña Ana County. Torres Small went on to win the race by fewer than 4,000 votes.

Torres Small and Herrell are now squaring off again for the seat, with Steve Jones, an independent, making a bid for the seat as a write-in candidate.

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As was the case in 2018, the race is close. A poll conducted by the Albuquerque Journal in late September showed Torres Small leading Herrell 47 to 45%, well within the poll’s margin of error. The remainder of those polled were undecided.

For Torres Small, a first-time officeholder and former natural resources and water rights attorney from Las Cruces, the last two years in Congress have been quite the experience.

When she was sworn into office it was amid a government shutdown and the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been a steep learning curve,” Torres Small said.

In Congress, Torres Small has positioned herself as a moderate, concentrating on issues impacting her 19-county, mostly rural district, which includes the oil fields of the Permian Basin and a large swath of the U.S-Mexican border.

She has also emphasized her work with Republicans on legislation, including one bill requiring commercial and personal vehicles entering the U.S. through ports of entry be scanned for illegal drugs, and another to boost resources to rural health centers so expectant mothers can receive the health care they need closer to home.

“So I am getting things done and the way you get things done in a divided government is by working with anyone to get things done,” she said.

Herrell though has countered that claim of bipartisanship, noting that Torres Small voted to impeach Trump.

Torres Small said the vote was meant to hold Trump accountable and that despite the vote, she has still voted for certain legislation pushed by the administration, such as the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA) and the Great American Outdoors Act.

Yvette Herrell addresses a crowd Jan. 31 in Roswell during the Republican Party of Chaves County pre-primary convention. (Daily Record File Photo)

A former state representative from Alamogordo, Herrell wasted little time getting back on the campaign trail following her defeat in 2018.

She announced her intention to again seek her party’s nomination in January 2019.

“I’m running for Congress because I believe New Mexicans deserve a representative who will work hard every day to keep growing the economy, safeguard our way of life from government overreach and push for solutions and funding to protect our borders,” Herrell said at the time.

A staunch backer of Trump, she said winning the seat back for Republicans is crucial.

Herrell, who lives in Alamogordo, presently works in real estate. In the past she has worked as a legislative assistant in Santa Fe before in 2010 being elected to represent House District 51 in the New Mexico House of Representatives.

In office for four terms, she compiled a heavily conservative legislative record.

“While serving in the New Mexico House of Representatives, I had a record of standing for life, the Second Amendment, private property rights, New Mexico’s industries, and always put my constituents first,” she said.

In June she won the Republican primary, handily defeating oil executive Claire Chase of Roswell and businessman Chris Mathys of Las Cruces.

Throughout the campaign, Herrell has lauded Trump’s handling of the pandemic, applauding his limiting of travel to the U.S. from China, increasing the manufacturing of personal protective equipment and federal efforts to create a vaccine.

A disenchantment with both parties and what he sees as the ineffectiveness of Congress are what prompted Jones to enter the campaign.

“I just can’t stand any further to see our Congress and country being destroyed by the duopoly of the two major parties,” he said.

Jones, a U.S. Army veteran, has worked in public accounting, served as a chief financial officer for different international energy companies and later was a consultant.

Because of the challenges associated with getting on the ballot in New Mexico, Jones is running a write-in campaign.

He said that in 2016, he could not bring himself to vote for either Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton and so he left the contest blank on his ballot.

The point at which Jones said he felt compelled to enter the race was during the move to impeach Trump late last year. Though he said he does not like Trump and did not vote for him, he thinks the freshman Democratic class elected in 2018 spends too much time and energy on impeachment.

As to where he stands ideologically, Jones said he straddles the political spectrum and has a strong mixture of positions from both sides of the political divide.

“I can basically go back and forth,” he said.

Having worked in finance, Jones described himself as a strong fiscal conservative, but he also backs legislation Torres Small opposed that would make $15 the federal minimum wage.

As the election draws to a close, Herrell and Torres Small say they like their odds.

Herrell points to what she said is high enthusiasm for her candidacy. And despite Trump’s low poll numbers nationally, she thinks his presence on the ballot will help carry her to victory in the 2nd Congressional District, which he carried by 10.5 points in 2016.

“I think there is a lot more support for this president than we know. Definitely in the Second Congressional (district), but I think that statewide we will see a benefit from President Trump being at the top of the ticket,” Herrell said.

Torres Small though is confident she has a path to another term in a district she says exhibits an independent streak.

“I can’t tell you the number of people who come up and say, ‘I vote for the person not the party,’” she said. “And I think that’s what New Mexicans do. Folks are interested in the solutions, not the problems or the divisions.”

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301 or breakingnews@rdrnews.com.

To keep up with coverage of this and other 2020 elections of local and regional interest, go to rdrnews.com/category/news/elections/.