News Column

Lujan a Safe Bet for House With Challenger Byrd 26 Points Behind in Poll

Oct. 16, 2012

Steve Terrell

Incumbent Congressman Ben Ray Lujan appears ready to coast to victory once again in his bid for re-election in New Mexico's heavily Democratic 3rd Congressional District.

Lujan, the son of outgoing state House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Nambe, is seeking his third term to represent Northern New Mexico in Congress. He's running against Jeff Byrd, a rancher from Quay County who also has worked in the oil industry. This is Byrd's first run for public office.

As usual, the national parties aren't paying much attention to this race in what is considered by all sides a safe Democratic seat. Last year's redistricting saw no significant changes in the district's political makeup. Statistics show 53 percent of voters in the district are registered as Democrats, while 28 percent are Republicans. The remainder are independents or members of minor parties.

An Albuquerque Journal poll in early September showed Lujan beating Byrd by a margin of 26 percentage points.

Lujan also has a lopsided advantage in fundraising, collecting more than $845,000 this election cycle and reporting about $416,000 cash on hand at the beginning of the month. Byrd has raised just more than $80,000 and had just more than $17,000 in the bank on Oct. 1.

A Republican has won the district only once in its 30-year history. That came in a special election in 1997 when the Democrats were split over controversial nominee Eric Serna. Enough Democrats voted for Green Party candidate Carol Miller to allow Republican Bill Redman of Los Alamos to win. Redman was defeated the next year by Tom Udall, now a U.S. senator.

Byrd has a friendly cowboy demeanor, declaring several times during a candidate forum last week in Santa Fe, "I'm not a career politician."

He supports repealing "Obamacare," advocates more emphasis on domestic oil production and is staunchly anti-abortion.

Before the Republican primary, Byrd's website said Social Security should be privatized "for the future." However, his site currently says, "We can protect the solvency of these programs by means testing, altering age requirements for new enrollees, and securing programs for future generations."

While Byrd's responses to most questions at recent campaign forums were predictably conservative, he doesn't talk in prepared sound bites -- as Lujan has a tendency to do when discussing national issues.

And sometimes his answers were surprising. At the Santa Fe forum, when asked about the controversial Citizens United Supreme Court decision -- which opened the way to unlimited political spending by corporations and unions during election season -- Byrd didn't defend the decision as protecting "free speech," as is the regular GOP line. He wasn't specific, but he said there needs to be some kind of campaign finance reform to get the influence of money out of politics.

Also, he wasn't nearly as hawkish as some other Republicans when asked about the possibility of military action against Iran. He agreed with Lujan that all negotiations should be exhausted before force is considered.

In Congress, Lujan has been a loyal soldier for the Democrats. The Washington Post's U.S. Congress Votes Database shows that in the current term he has supported his party's position 93 percent of the time. That's down from his first term when his Democratic Party support rate was 99 percent.

At recent forums he has defended the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Lujan also said he supports making "millionaires and billionaires" pay a bigger share of taxes and advocated more support for wind and solar energy.

Last week in a debate on KNME television, moderator Sam Donaldson asked Lujan to name any significant legislation on which he bucked his party. Lujan answered that he voted against amendments to a food-safety bill because he thought they would be bad for some businesses in his district. The amendments would have expanded the Food and Drug Administration's authority to regulate food products and facilities, including factories, warehouses and processing plants.

During his first term in Congress, Congressional Quarterly, a Washington-based legislative and political news service, said of Lujan, "He follows in the active environmentalist mold of his predecessor, Democrat Tom Udall, who moved to the Senate."

The publication noted that Lujan "has shown some of the political skills of his father, a well-known veteran dealmaker in New Mexico and speaker of the state House." But the profile also said he is known for answering questions with polished replies that sound like his news releases.

Lujan sits on the Natural Resources Committee and the Science, Space and Technology Committee. In June, he was named ranking member of the Indian and Alaska Native Affairs Subcommittee. Lujan has been mentioned in national publications as having a good chance to become chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus next year after current chairman, Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-Texas, steps down.

Lujan's biggest contributor is Public Service Company of New Mexico, which gave him $11,ooo. Several labor unions contributed $10,000 each. These include the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Ironworkers Union, The Laborers International Union of North America, the Machinists/Aerospace Workers Union and the Operating Engineers Union. Also making $10,000 contributions to Lujan were New York Life Insurance and the National Auto Dealers Association.

Byrd's biggest contributors were the Santa Fe County Republican Party, $3,500; 2010 Lujan opponent Tom Mullins' campaign committee, $2,000; Four Corners Federated Republican Women, who gave $1,995; Jim Byrd of Bloomfield, $1,500; former Santa Fe County GOP Chairman Jim Bohlander and his wife, Sheryl, who gave a total of $1,500.



Source: (c)2012 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.


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