LAS CRUCES, N.M. – When he announced his retirement in January, popular Republican Rep. Joe Skeen of New Mexico left one of the largest districts in the nation up for grabs.
In fact, the 69,000-square-mile 2nd District is so big, the five Republicans and two Democrats running in the June 4 primary are having trouble getting name recognition beyond their hometowns.
"We don't care how many miles we put on that pickup," said Republican Earl Greer, who like the other candidates figures face-to-face contact is the only way to reach voters. "We're gonna be in every county many times."
The district has 606,400 people, takes up more than half the state and borders Arizona, Texas and Mexico. Dominated by vast stretches of desert, forest and mountains, it's home to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the city of Roswell — the scene of what believers say was a UFO crash in 1947 — and Truth or Consequences, the town named after the game show.
Fifty-two percent of the population is Democratic. Yet the district, dominated by traditionally conservative interests — ranching and oil and gas — has repeatedly elected Republicans in national races.
"New Mexico is going to be a battleground district in the fight to take back the House," said Jenny Backus, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "This is a great opportunity for a pick up for us."
Democrats need to win seven GOP seats in November to reclaim control of the House. They currently have 211 to the Republicans' 222, with two independents. It takes 218 to guarantee a majority.
The 74-year-old Skeen, retiring after 22 years in Congress, leaves a legacy of fighting for the rights of farmers and ranchers and helping the state's economy with his work to open an underground nuclear waste dump.
The candidates trying to succeed him share many of his views, including opposing a federal program to reintroduce the endangered Mexican gray wolf in New Mexico. Some ranchers complain that the wolves kill livestock and raid garbage.
Four of the five Republicans are or have been involved in ranching and have agricultural backgrounds similar to Skeen. Two of them also run oil and gas drilling businesses.
Last month, Skeen decided to back fellow Republican Ed Tinsley, a steakhouse chain owner. At a recent candidate's forum, Tinsley spoke in favor of the death penalty, saying, "some of these crimes are so horrendous that I would certainly like to take the people out and drag them behind my horse until their head popped off." Few in the audience flinched.
Tinsley received 22 percent of the delegate vote at the state GOP convention in March, compared with 36 percent for Steve Pearce, a former state legislator who made an unsuccessful bid for the Senate in 2000.
Fellow candidate Phelps Anderson, the Republican son of a petroleum company executive, said the incumbent's "attempt to pick his successor is a mistake."
Leo Martinez, a Republican county commissioner, said he was disappointed Skeen would endorse a candidate who, as a practical matter, lives in Albuquerque, although he owns a ranch in the district.
Martinez and Ruben Smith, a Democrat, are Hispanic and speak Spanish fluently. Greer is half Hispanic and also speaks Spanish. About 47 percent of district residents are Hispanic.
The other Democratic candidate is John Arthur Smith — no relation to Ruben Smith — a state lawmaker and real estate appraiser.
Jose Garcia, associate professor of government at New Mexico State University, said the fact that Democrats in the race are not overly liberal and that there's no candidate who is well known throughout the district opens things up.
"I think it's going to be a hard job for any candidate to emerge as a favorite," he said.