Both members of Congress are seeking to replace six-term Republican Pete Domenici, an energy-reform proponent who has served more than 30 years in the Senate and is retiring after being diagnosed with a progressive brain disease.
All three of the state’s U.S. House members vacated their seats to run for Domenici’s spot. Pearce beat out Rep. Heather Wilson for the Republican nomination in the state’s primary. Either he or Udall will join Democrat Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to represent New Mexico in the Senate.
Energy has proven a signature issue in the race. Pearce has called for increasing nuclear energy development as well as off-shore drilling, while Udall has been a strong supporter of alternative energy and environmental protection.
KNME radio director Kevin McDonald says the gap in the debate on renewable energy “is really indicative of the state.”
“You’re seeing more of a bipartisan thought process,” McDonald said.
Oil exports represent 40 percent of the state’s budget, says Pearce spokesman Brian Phillips. With oil workers accounting for a significant number of jobs in the state, many are torn over implementing too many penalties on the state’s oil producers.
“Tom Udall has voted to punish oil companies for making a legal product and selling it,” Phillips said in reference to legislation Udall supported that provides tax incentives for companies developing renewable energy and sanctions for those not meeting clean emissions goals.
Udall spokeswoman Marissa Padilla counters that Pearce “voted against increasing Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards and against the renewable electricity standard.”
While the candidates swap attacks over the best routes to sustainable energy production, McDonald feels the real debate in New Mexico communities is over job opportunities in the energy industry.
“People are sort of clinging to that,” McDonald said. “There isn’t any real disagreement at all on moving ahead, especially on solar and wind” energy.
Jobs and broad economic concerns are also framing the way the candidates talk about issues such as immigration and national security.
The heavily Hispanic and Native-American state is carefully weighing candidate stances on securing the U.S.-Mexico border and allowing legalization for immigrants. Hispanics comprise more than 40 percent of the electorate in the southwestern state.
Udall, a former state attorney general, supports “an eventual path to legalization that includes paying back taxes and waiting in line,” Udall spokeswoman Padilla said.
Phillips says the GOP Pearce team is trying to relate on core values to reach out to Hispanic voters.
“There is a thread of social conservativism among Hispanics and Catholics in the north. They’re just not comfortable with Mr. Udall,” he said, adding that Peace has been working with Native American tribes “in getting them infrastructure grants and housing benefits.”
Considered a battleground in the presidential race, New Mexico’s Senate race appears to be competitive. Udall held a 28-point lead over Pearce in a June 19 Rasmussen poll, but Pearce has since made up ground, trailing Udall by only 7 points — 51 to 44 percent — in another Rasmussen survey taken Sept. 8.
President Bush tied opponent John Kerry at 49 percent of New Mexico’s presidential vote in 2004. Bush won the state’s five Electoral College votes by a margin of fewer than 6,000 votes. Democrat candidate Al Gore narrowly took the state in 2000.
Pearce took a perceived hit in early September when the GOP Senate campaign arm canceled a plan to buy media time for television ads that were to air in New Mexico in the run-up to Election Day. According to an AP report, some political watchers saw the decision as a signal that Pearce had been left to fend for himself as the party braces for losses.
While the candidates have returned frequently to the topics of energy and the economy, they have purposely bypassed more controversial issues, such as the debate over a proposed power plant that the Navajo nation is seeking to build.
“That’s a real fine line everybody’s walking because of tribal sovereignty,” McDonald said.
McDonald feels the candidates will stay away from polarizing issues such as tribal sovereignty but also keep from sparring on topics such as health care and education, where their proposals are largely similar. He also expects that debates over energy reform will continue to escalate and will soon include specific disputes over laboratory and research funding.
In June, the House Appropriations Committee approved a proposal for a cut in funding for Los Alamos National Laboratory, a pioneering institution on renewable energy research. Udall voted against the cuts, but “took a lot of heat about the perception that he didn’t do enough to try and to stand up for lab funding,” McDonald said, adding that he expects attention over Udall’s efforts to increase before November’s election.
As part of a special “Meet the Press” debate series on competitive Senate races, NBC’s Tom Brokaw will moderate a debate between Udall and Pearce on Oct. 12.