News Column

2 Vie to Be Oft-ignored GOP Pick for NM's 3rd House District

May 23, 2012

Steve Terrell

Republican candidates in Northern New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District don't get much respect -- at least not from the national GOP.

The district is heavily Democratic by voter registration, despite Republican strongholds in Farmington and Clovis.

According to the New Mexico Secretary of State's Office website, 53 percent of the voters in the district are registered Democrats. Republicans account for 28 percent, with independents and members of other parties making up 19 percent of those registered.

Therefore, it's no big surprise that the National Republican Congressional Committee almost always ignores whoever gets to be the Republican candidate for Congress. So there's usually little money for the GOP nominee to run a credible campaign.

In fact, in recent election cycles, when the national committee sends out its news release congratulating the winners of the Republican primary in the 1st and 2nd congressional districts, it hasn't even bothered to congratulate the GOP's winner of the 3rd.

Nonetheless, this year two candidates are vying for the right to run an uphill campaign against well-funded incumbent Ben Ray Lujan, who vanquished potential Democratic challengers at his party's pre-primary convention.

The candidates are rancher Jeff Byrd from Eastern New Mexico and nuclear physicist Rick Newton, who has lived for several months in Taos.

The candidates have a lot in common. Each stresses his own conservative credentials. Both embrace the concept of a "fair" tax. Both talk about regulations impeding businesses. Each notes that he's not a career politician. (This is each candidate's first campaign for elected office.)

But there are differences.

Originally from Hannibal, Mo., Newton first came to New Mexico in 1969. He worked for the Booz, Allen, Hamilton consulting firm, a contractor at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. During that time, Newton bought land in Sandoval County, which he sold years ago. He didn't stay in the state. His career led him to New Jersey and Washington, D.C., and various spots around the world.

Newton says he helped prepare Soviet nuclear threat assessments for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in the 1970s. His campaign material mentions his involvement in the recovery of a nuclear-powered Soviet submarine in the Pacific Ocean as well as recovery of the S.S. Central America, a steamship that sank in 1857 with an estimated $1 billion in gold, and other undersea projects.

Newton, who owns a security technology company, returned to New Mexico about 14 years ago. He has spent most of that time in Albuquerque, though he now lives on leased property in Taos.

Twenty-five years younger than Newton, Byrd was born in northeastern New Mexico to a ranching family in Harding County. He lived in Houston for years, then spent several years in Carlsbad before returning to the northeastern part of the state -- Quay County -- where he leases ranch land.

"I'm invested in the district," Byrd said. "My wife and I have businesses here. Our kids are in school here." His campaign slogan stresses this: "From New Mexico, For New Mexico."

Both Byrd and Newton have concentrated mostly on economic issues in their campaigns. However, Byrd forcefully embraces the social-conservative wing of the GOP. His website has a section talking about his love of God. "I'm the true social conservative in the race," he said.

Newton stresses a couple of positions on issues that aren't part of a generic Republican playbook.

He proposes using profits from oil and gas drilling and mining on federal land to pay for Social Security and Medicare. Regarding illegal immigration, Newton wants the government to use new technology that he says would detect tunnels under the border. He said technology exists that would repel people from trying to use the tunnels by making them unbearable. "It makes you feel like you're burning up," he said.

Byrd wants to privatize Social Security. He also says it's imperative to secure the border but doesn't propose any specific technology to do so.

Newton has won a high-profile endorsement -- former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has property in Taos County.

Byrd doesn't have any backers quite that famous. But he's got the support of state Public Regulation Commission Chairman and former state Land Commissioner Pat Lyons, as well as other northeastern Republicans, such as retiring state Sen. Clint Harden of Clovis and Rep. Dennis Roche of Texico. He also was endorsed by former Fort Defiance Indian Hospital executive Dr. Franklin Freeland, who Byrd hopes would help him in Indian Country in the general election.

Source: (c) 2012 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

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