SANTA FE and ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.-While on the road to a campaign event, New Mexico congressional candidate Steve Pearce spent a few minutes staring at the BlackBerry in his hand, trying to answer a candidate survey that asked about his funniest campaign memory. He finally remembered the time a staffer caught his coat in the door during a plane ride and emerged from the plane in tatters. You remember the bruises, he mused, but the funny moments have a short shelf life.
Pearce drew laughs later that day when he spoke before a receptive audience at the annual New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA) meeting. Someone shouted "Amen!" when he spoke against a statewide cap-and-trade plan. Pearce deadpanned, "Thank you. We'll pass the plate later." He went on to decry excessive regulation, telling an anecdote about a government employee who informed three New Mexico businessmen, "I'm from the Department of Transportation and my job is to put you out of business." Pearce called cap and trade "one of the most destructive" policies that could befall the American economy.
In a state where the oil and gas industry provides 23,000 jobs and almost one-fifth of the revenue in the State General Fund, cap and trade may decide the close race between Pearce and Democratic incumbent Harry Teague. A moderate Democrat, Teague voted against the healthcare overhaul but for the House cap-and-trade bill, which would cap carbon emissions and make companies buy and sell permits to emit greenhouse gases. Cap-and-trade legislation eventually bogged down in the Senate, but Democrats in both chambers remain committed to it.
Paul Gessing, president of the New Mexico--based free market think tank Rio Grande Foundation, said Teague might have a stronger grip on his seat if he had opposed both the healthcare law and cap and trade. James Taylor, senior fellow for environmental policy at the Heartland Institute, predicted, "Harry Teague's vote for cap and trade will most likely be his undoing."
Pearce is a decorated Vietnam veteran who served three terms in Congress before losing a Senate race in 2008. He speaks in blunt, definitive statements: "The stimulus doesn't work." "Gotta secure the border." He preached the same message to newspaper editors and to oil and gas employees that day: More jobs come from less regulation, lower taxes, and smaller government. He even gave the same example three times: 27,000 farmers in the San Joaquin Valley lost their livelihoods to protect a two-inch minnow.
People are angry, Pearce says, and with a passion he didn't see when he campaigned in previous elections. Voters' fears go beyond policy beefs to a belief that the system is failing-that leaders are ignoring the Constitution, that they're spending more than taxpayers have, who may not be able to retire or pay for their houses.
Over a sandwich and fries at Milly's Sandwich Shop in Albuquerque, Pearce said he was shaking hands at a farm implement auction when a voter got in his face. "He was supportive of me but just furious. I mean right here furious," Pearce said, holding his hand inches away from his face. "I'm answering each of the questions he's firing at me: 'Why can't you all fix this? Why can't you do this? Why are you always talking about that? Nothing ever changes. Y'all are all the same.'" The man calmed down after a 15-minute conversation, but Pearce has seen the same explosiveness in other voters, too.
New Mexican voters are especially angry about cap and trade. Mike Bowen, executive director of the New Mexico Mining Association, said the industries in the district are worried: "If that cap and trade goes through all the way and the cost of electricity goes up or the cost of energy in general goes up, then their cost of production goes up." Prices go up, too, and Pearce has talked to consumers and farmers who know it: "People know it's going to cost them more to live, that it will cost businesses more, which will drive out jobs."
Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson put the oil and gas companies on edge when he pushed a state plan to cap carbon emissions, said Gessing: "The industry is definitely feeling the need to get more active and get things going in terms of fighting back." The oil and gas industry has donated more money-over $160,000-to Pearce's campaign than to any other House candidacy this year, according to FEC data analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Pearce, who says "even the scientists that are in charge" don't believe in man-made climate change, has aired an ad saying that Teague's vote on the "cap and trade tax" means "fewer jobs." The Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund countered with an ad saying that a watchdog group put Pearce on a list of corrupt congressmen for cutting a deal with an oil company before voting to lower taxes for oil and gas. But the House Ethics Committee cleared Pearce, and FactCheck.org notes that Pearce actually voted for a net increase of taxes on oil and gas.
When I asked Pearce why he thought his opponent took such a politically untenable stand, Pearce said Teague has never explained it well. After the NMOGA candidate forum, New Mexico State Rep. Bill Gray told me he warned Teague, "'That's a bad vote.' He said, 'Well it's gonna pass anyway.' I said, 'That doesn't make any difference.' He said, 'Well I got concessions for the small refineries.' I said, 'We didn't ask for it. We want to keep a level playing field.'" Cap and trade would bring Gray's district "to our knees," he said. The state's largest oil refinery might have to close, putting 500 people out of work.
Nationwide, other Republican candidates are hammering their opponents on cap and trade in a strategy that seems to be paying off. In the Delaware Senate primary, Christine O'Donnell beat her opponent Mike Castle after slamming his support for cap and trade. In Wisconsin, Republican senatorial candidate Ron Johnson scoffed at man-made climate change and posited that the world's warming is due to "sunspot activity," all while putting Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold 9 points behind him.
Andy Barr, the GOP candidate for Kentucky's 6th District, has gained on Democratic incumbent Ben Chandler while promising to fight cap and trade. Kentucky senatorial candidate Rand Paul has released a campaign ad that shows a red "Jack Conway Approved" stamp slamming onto a document marked "Cap and Trade" while a Barack Obama impersonator says he can count on Jack Conway to approve higher taxes. In the West Virginia Senate race, Republican John Raese now has a 5-point lead over Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin. A Raese ad slams Manchin for signing a bill that it calls "Obama's Cap and Trade bill, West Virginia style."
As Pearce spoke of energy and regulations over his sandwich, a man in jeans and a button-up work shirt came to the table, asking Pearce to sign his newspaper next to an article that says Pearce is gaining on Teague and the race is a tie. Pearce asked the man's name and signed in a close, deliberate hand while the supporter told him where he worked-in oil and gas.
At a government building in Santa Fe, N.M., plumber Bill Lopez approached the microphone wearing a camouflage hat and jeans. Just that afternoon, his teenage daughter had told him the Environmental Improvement Board (EIB) was holding a public forum about a regulation that would cap carbon emissions statewide.
Lopez said he saw energy inefficiencies in his business each day and urged the Board to pass the regulation. In a voice thick with emotion, he asked the Board and the audience speaking out in the forum, "Where are the gas and oil people while we're here as a community supporting this law?"
They were also in Santa Fe at the annual New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOAG) meeting, opposing the regulation for its effect on utility prices and New Mexico jobs.
After several failed legislative attempts to pass a statewide cap on carbon emissions, Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson is pushing the regulation through the unelected EIB, a board with three members who actively champion environmental causes. The regulation battle began last year when the environmental group New Energy Economy filed a petition with the Board asking that it order a reduction in statewide greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent below 1990 emission levels by 2020-a proposal stricter than federal cap-and-trade legislation.
In January, 13 plaintiffs-two state representatives representing oil-rich districts and a posse of oil company organizations-filed a complaint arguing that the EIB does not have the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions until it establishes an ambient air quality standard for greenhouse gases. The plaintiffs won in District Court, but the New Mexico Supreme Court overturned the ruling. Now the EIB is collecting expert testimony and holding public hearings before beginning deliberations in November.
In an hour and 15 minutes of public testimony on Oct. 4, not one citizen opposed the regulation. Teenagers came forward wearing shorts and T-shirts and reading paeans to the beauty of New Mexico. One asthmatic held up her inhaler and said it cost her $193 a month-money she would gladly pay toward cleaner energy and a higher utility bill instead. The owner of an RV park spoke in favor of the regulation, saying he was already using solar energy to deal with rising energy costs.
But at the NMOGA candidate forum, opposition to the regulation crossed party boundaries. Diane Denish, Democratic candidate for governor, spoke of her childhood years in the "oil patch" and said she opposed a statewide cap on emissions: "I don't think it's right to put New Mexico at a disadvantage when it comes to job creation." But when Marita Noon, executive director of Citizens' Alliance for Responsible Energy, asked Denish what she would do to reverse the regulation, Denish said she didn't yet know.
Republican candidate Susana Martinez said that she would put an immediate moratorium on the regulation.
The EIB will begin deliberations on Nov. 2 and may push the regulation through before the new governor takes office. New Mexico GOP leaders have asked state Attorney General Gary King to investigate the Board's conflicts of interest. If the attorney general delays the proceedings, Richardson could also issue an executive order instituting the cap-an order easy for the next governor to undo.
Mike Bowen, executive director of the New Mexico Mining Association, said his industry employs about 6,000 New Mexicans but that the industry will move to friendlier states if an emissions cap raises the cost of energy and production costs. "If the cost of doing business in New Mexico is going to rise . . . then they're going to stop producing here in New Mexico, and we don't want that to happen," he said. "They don't have to be here."