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Trump wades into expensive House rematch in New Mexico

After returning from Walter Reed Medical Center following his COVID-19 diagnosis earlier this month, one of President Trump's first moves back in the White House was to rally supporters over the phone in New Mexico's Second Congressional District. 

"I'm sitting in the Oval Office of the White House and there's nothing more important than getting you to Washington because we need you badly," the president said in a recording of the call posted by Yvette Herrell, the GOP candidate there.  

"Yvette's opponent, Xochitl Torres Small, is a total puppet for Nancy Pelosi. She's a radical left puppet," the president added. 

File: (Left to right) New Mexico Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D) / Yvette Herrell (R) AP file photos

In New Mexico, Hillary Clinton bested then-candidate Trump by more than 8 points in 2016. And despite a years-long investment by the Trump campaign in the state, Mr. Trump remains deeply unpopular: a recent survey found Joe Biden leading by a steep 14-point margin among New Mexicans. 

But Republicans hope the president's backing could boost turnout in the slice of New Mexico that elected first-term Democratic Congresswoman Xochitl Torres Small in 2018. Torres Small's district counts among a select handful to have both backed President Trump by double-digit margins in 2016 and a Democratic House newcomer just two years later.  

"I am popular in your district, to put it mildly — like record numbers. And she was saying all these wonderful things about me but then she raises her hand all the time — let's impeach him," Mr. Trump said of Torres Small on the call. 

Recent polls put the rematch of their 2018 race within the margin of error. Herrell lost to Torres Small by less than two points. 

Herrell is a local small business owner and realtor who represented southern New Mexico as a lawmaker in the New Mexico state House. Torres Small worked as a field representative in the state for U.S. Senator Tom Udall and was an attorney before her midterm election victory.  

"I put politics aside and worked with Republicans, Democrats, and President Trump to pass the coronavirus relief plan," Torres Small said in her first spot of this cycle, among a slew of ads aggressively touting a moderate message.  

Torres Small's voting record ranks as one of the most conservative among House Democrats, though critics often point to a ProPublica analysis showing she voted with Nancy Pelosi 94% of the time.

Other spots have featured footage of Torres Small looking to "unwind" over target practice, wielding a 12-gauge shotgun and praise from a "lifelong Republican" over aid she secured for a local rural hospital.  

Herrell's campaign has fired back with ads of its own, including one featuring a local Democratic sheriff accusing Torres Small of having "sold us out and voted for gun control" over backing a background checks bill the Trump administration eventually opposed.  

Outside groups have also poured millions into New Mexico's Second Congressional District, ballooning the race into one America's most expensive, according to a Wesleyan Media Project analysis of Kantar/CMAG television ad spending data. In under a month, since September 28, almost $3.7 million has been spent on the contest according to a Wesleyan Media Project analysis of television ad spending data.

The swelling cost of the contest has also become an issue in itself for allies on both sides, from attacks on Torres Small for accepting "more than $100,000 from lobbyists" to denunciations of Herrell for taking "over $200,000 from corporate polluters."  

Torres Small ranks among the 20 top-raising House incumbents in Congress, her total fundraising haul tripling that of Herrell's.  

Democrats have denounced Herrell for "turning a blind eye to ethics laws" after the Republican attributed a $2,800 donation received through WinRed, the GOP's main fundraising platform, to a donor who had died in 2017 before WinRed was even launched in 2019. 

Herrell's campaign blamed the prohibited donation on a move made automatically by their fundraising system, claiming it fixed the error as soon as it was identified with an amended report to the FEC.  

But few issues have dominated this toss-up race like oil and gas, which had fueled much of New Mexico's growth before the COVID-19 pandemic crippled the industry earlier this year.  

"There's a bunch of companies who, they're closing up shop until next year because they have just absolutely no work," says Caleb Garcia, who works as a safety coordinator for a trucking company in the state's once-booming oil and gas economy. 

After plummeting earlier this year when oil prices collapsed, oil production in New Mexico has gradually ticked up across the state. But a long road to recovery remains for the industry. Just 45 rigs were active in New Mexico, down from 112 rigs at this time last year, according to a tally by oilfield services firm Baker Hughes. 

"We went down from 45 to 50 drivers down to maybe 25. And that's mainly so that everyone can get decent hours. We're not talking about how it used to be where it was 90 to 100 hours. These guys are 45 hours, barely," added Garcia.  

Torres Small has repeatedly insisted she "stood up" to fellow Democrats in defending the state's breadwinner firms, citing her push to include the industry for coronavirus relief and praise from the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. After New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appeared to celebrate the pandemic-induced crash in oil prices earlier this year, Torres Small rebuked the New York Democrat for taking "joy in their suffering."  

But such moves have done little to avert her opponents' attacks over the issue.  

Several spots run by the GOP-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund accuse Torres Small of "working together" with Ocasio-Cortez "to end oil and gas production" and decry spending by the League of Conservation Voters that backs Torres Small. In debates, Herrell has repeatedly criticized the Democrat for saying she would vote for Joe Biden, whose campaign has signaled he would oppose new fracking on federal lands as president. 

"You know, in 2016 we had that crazy downturn and we went back to booming after that. No one expected that. This time around everyone's saying, 'I don't know if it will happen again. We're just hoping to have jobs after the election,'" said Garcia, a self-described moderate voter who has worked to support local Democrats in the past.  

Oil and gas trade groups claim Biden's proposed ban on new fracking from federal lands could cost New Mexico 62,000 jobs by 2022. Torres Small has vowed to oppose the former vice president on this policy, saying she disagreed with his "oil and gas approach."  

"I wish people who were of that Green New Deal understood this area of the country. You know, New Mexico, one third of our GDP comes from this industry. You close down the oil and gas industry, you're shutting down our economy," added Garcia. 

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