- Associated Press - Friday, June 1, 2018

LOCO HILLS, N.M. (AP) - As primary season sets the stage for the midterm elections, a sprawling New Mexico district that stretches from the U.S.-Mexico border to oil fields near Texas could help tip control of Congress.

The 2nd District’s long-time Republican Congressman Steve Pearce is stepping down to run for governor, giving Democrats their best opportunity to recapture a seat they haven’t won since Barack Obama was first elected president in 2008.

It’s the most Hispanic congressional district in the most Hispanic state, and registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans. But the district’s conservative-leaning independents have intricate views on water, immigration, international trade and oil production. That makes any election outcome difficult to predict in this region of oil wells, picturesque forests and narrow, rural roads.

“There’s a lot of anxiety around these parts,” Kelly DeLong, the 55-year-old owner of Kelly’s Cafe in Loco Hills, said after a busy lunch hour serving rig workers.

“We’re OK today,” she said before looking up as strong winds pushed the door open. No one entered. “Tomorrow….who knows?”

President Donald Trump won the district by roughly 10 percentage points in 2016.

“We’re conservative but we don’t like anyone telling us what to do,” said Tami Cavitt, vice president of Lobo Nut & Bolt, a Hobbs-based company that sells oilfield supplies and pecans.

The district’s GOP and Democratic June 5 primaries also highlight the divisions within the parties and the region’s unique concerns.

On the Republican side, former Hobbs Mayor Monty Newman, state Rep. Yvette Herrell and former Interior Department official Gavin Clarkson have raised the most money. They’ve campaigned on being the best to push Trump’s agenda.

Newman, 63, is running on his record at revitalizing businesses in Hobbs and diversifying southeastern New Mexico’s economy with an eye toward border enforcement.

Herrell, 54, of Alamogordo, has sought to position herself as the strongest Trump ally and staunch supporter of the push to build a wall along the border.

Clarkson, 49, a Las Cruces business professor and member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said his brief experience as a senior official in Interior Department under Trump better suits the state for energy and tribal economic growth.

But the full-throttle embrace of Trump worries people like Alex Sierra, an Acme Mills plant manager in Santa Teresa, which sits near a border fence with Mexico. Sierra doesn’t like Trump’s threat to end the North American Free Trade Agreement. Talk of repeal has created angst among manufacturers and suppliers seeking to expand and compete with those in Brazil, Sierra said.

Meanwhile, Democrats are set to choose between water attorney Xochitl Torres Small and U.S. Coast Guard veteran Madeline “Mad” Hildebrandt.

Hildebrandt entered the race as part of the Trump resistance movement but has complained that state Democratic officials have tried to force her to quit despite an early fundraising spike. The gun owner has promised to fight what she has called Trump’s anti-environment, pro-fracking agenda.

Torres Small, the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants and the wife of a state lawmaker, has rarely mentioned Trump’s name on the campaign trail. She tells voters she’s a gun owner who postponed her honeymoon to go hunting. Inside her freezer are elk, deer and antelope meats “and green chile,” she said.

Unlike previous Democratic candidates in the district, Torres Small is embracing the area’s oil and gas economy and vows to help fix and expand highways to prepare for increased production.

DeLong, the cafe owner and a life-long Republican, doesn’t think she could vote for a Democrat even though that candidate’s platform includes a place for oil and gas.

For Democrats to win, they will need to get people like Jose Espinoza, 18, to the polls in the general election. He lives in a battered trailer in Vado with his 19-year-old Mexican-born wife and their 4-month-old baby. He picks onions for around $50 to $100 a day to support his family.

Espinoza believes he has too much on his mind to vote.

“I don’t think the politicians understand what we are going through,” Espinoza said, while sticking a screwdriver through a hole of a dilapidated microwave to get it working. After a few seconds, a microwave light goes on. “Maybe I’ll vote.”

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Associated Press writer Russell Contreras is a member of the AP’s race and ethnicity team. Follow Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

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