Jefferson Byrd, the Republican candidate hoping to dethrone incumbent Democrat Ben Ray Luján from his US House seat, is going to light up like a prairie fire.
That’s how his campaign manager, Rey Herrera, responded to questions about Byrd’s chances in the 3rd Congressional District, where GOP candidates have fared about as well as dry grass in a fire.
Yet Byrd’s campaign says his candidacy is taking off, claiming donations and support are picking up. (Herrera declined to provide specific fundraising numbers.) They’re hoping Luján will agree to debate Byrd, who soon departs for a 16-county tour of CD3.
Luján, for his part, “is working tirelessly day in and day out to serve the people of northern New Mexico,” campaign manager Joseph Casados writes in an email to SFR. “He is focused on continuing his efforts to build a stronger future for our state that includes job creation, protecting our land and water, and preserving Social Security and Medicare for our seniors.”
The district, which encompasses nearly all of northern New Mexico, is unfriendly territory for Republicans. Since former Gov. Bill Richardson took the seat in 1983, the district has only elected one Republican—in a 1997 special election after Richardson left for a United Nations post.
Politically, little has changed. According to the New Mexico Secretary of State’s office, as of July, only 28 percent of voters in CD3 are registered Republicans, and 16 percent don’t state a party affiliation. That means registered Democrats, at 53 percent, outnumber Republicans and independents combined by nine percentage points. To win, Byrd likely needs to take most of the independent votes, as well as some Democratic ones—an uphill battle for a candidate with a definite conservative bent.
Byrd acknowledges his fundraising numbers might not be anywhere near those of Luján, who reported more than $416,000 cash on hand in a June 30 Federal Election Commission report. During the same period, Byrd raised $28,000 and spent all but $920 of it. Luján has enjoyed generous donations from the gambling and casino industry; lawyers; lobbyists; and unions. The same report shows Byrd has had no financial backing from industry or even from his own party. He’s not upset about the GOP’s lack of support; instead, he calls it the “reality” for Republican candidates in this “traditional Democratic stronghold.”
In short, the party recognizes that Byrd is a long shot.
“The Republicans did their due diligence and analyzed the history of the district and decided it wasn’t going to make its A or B list,” Brian Sanderoff, president of Albuquerque-based Research and Polling, Inc., tells SFR. “[Political parties] still have to prioritize. They’re not looking at a 20-year investment plan. They’re looking at this election cycle.”
But Sanderoff notes that Byrd has the impressive biography of a family man from a multigenerational ranch—“all good attributes for a candidate,” he says.
Wearing a wide-brimmed hat and cowboy boots, Byrd, 40, is modest and soft-spoken. He spoke with SFR at GOP headquarters in Rio Rancho, where the Sandoval County GOP hosted an ice cream social for candidates and voters.
His answers are both nuanced and full of party talking points. To explain why he supports lowering taxes, he sketches a rudimentary graph representing the Laffer curve, a conservative economic theory in which high tax rates, at a certain point, actually decrease government revenues because they discourage people from earning an income. Byrd supports a flat tax and says he would have voted to extend the Bush tax cuts.
After growing up on the family ranch in Mosquero, Byrd studied agricultural engineering at New Mexico State University. He estimates that he received an overall GPA of 2.5 to 2.7, faring better in upper-level courses than lower-level prerequisites that didn’t spark his interest. The only time he felt a buzz from alcohol occurred at NMSU. He and a friend, thirsty after biking, inadvertently drank the only cold beverage in the fridge: wine coolers.
“That was as close as to drunk as I ever got,” he says with a laugh. He says he’s never done any illegal drugs, but will puff on a cigar and sip on wine or a scotch and Coke on the right occasion.
Byrd, a Baptist, believes the Bible is the inspired word of God, and his religion colors some of his policy stances. He’s anti-abortion, for instance, and thinks the debate about gay marriage indicates society has “veered away from God-fearing people.”
“I’m not pro-gay, but I’m not anti-gay,” he adds. “Whatever someone wants to do is their own business. Just don’t try to tell me I have to do it, too. Which seems kind of silly, because I just said you can’t get married if you’re a guy that likes another guy…I understand there’s some apparent hypocrisy to it, but it’s because it’s tied to biblical principles.”
That viewpoint isn’t the only stark policy contrast between Byrd and Luján, a supporter of same-sex marriage who in 2009 co-sponsored a bill that would have extended benefits to domestic partners of federal employees.
Byrd’s 14-year career as an environmental engineer working in oil refining led him to suggest abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency; he believes state regulations make the EPA redundant. He also doubts the science behind global warming, claiming that “there’s no substantiated fact to back up the theory.” (That represents a departure from the majority of the scientific community on the issue; James Hansen, a well-known climate-change scientist, recently co-authored a paper linking severe storms and droughts to climate change.) Luján, by contrast, has voted for cap-and-trade legislation regulating greenhouse gas emissions.
But Byrd contends that ranchers are the best stewards of the land, and he supports government subsidization of renewable energy research for the labs. That’s an area where the two candidates might find common ground: In 2009, Luján introduced a bill that would have authorized funding for national environmental research parks, including one at Los Alamos.
Byrd toes the GOP line on taxes, deregulation and repealing President Barack Obama’s health care bill. He would have voted against the 2008 economic stimulus package, and doesn’t think so-called too-big-to-fail banks need to be broken up.
Byrd also drew a contrast with his primary opponent, Rick Newton, by saying he favored privatizing Social Security. Newton, a former Navy SEAL and a nuclear physicist who outraised Byrd by roughly $41,000 and enjoyed a high-profile endorsement from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, lost that race by eight percentage points.
Bruce Larsen, chairman of the Santa Fe County Republican Party, says Byrd won because he connected with primary voters. He calls Byrd a “salt-of-the-earth guy” who talks the language of all of the district’s major sectors—ranchers, farmers and even officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
“Frankly, at the start, I thought that Rick Newton was galloping ahead,” Larsen says. “[Byrd] just worked his tail off, and he was everywhere and stayed with it and got the votes.”
But while Sanderoff doesn’t see primaries—which usually attract a party’s more ideological members—as a crystal ball for general elections, Byrd continues to plod confidently along the campaign trail, hoping to surprise his opponent.
“We like them to keep thinking” that Luján has a wide lead, Herrera says. “We’re about to sneak up on them and open up a can of whoop-ass.”