Correction: Election 2018-House-Border story

October 20, 2018 - 2:18 pm

COLUMBUS, N.M. (AP) — In a story Oct. 19 about U.S. House races along the Southern border, The Associated Press erroneously referred to Nancy Pelosi as U.S. House majority leader. She is the minority leader.

A corrected version of the story is below:

Border towns key in close US House races amid wall talk

As Democrats seek to flip a key GOP-leaning U.S. House seat in southern New Mexico, the path to victory in these congressional districts includes winning over fiercely independent voters in border communities who have their own views about border life

By RUSSELL CONTRERAS

Associated Press

COLUMBUS, N.M. (AP) — Flashing lights shook William Johnson from a deep sleep around midnight earlier this month when U.S. Border Patrol agents surrounded his home. The 71-year-old retired chef peeked out a window, then waited for a knock at the door. It never came.

"Guess they were looking for someone," he shrugged before going back to bed. Such patrols happen often in Columbus, New Mexico.

As Democrats seek to flip a key GOP U.S. House seat in southern New Mexico, the path to victory in districts like these includes winning over fiercely independent voters in border communities who have their own views about life along the U.S-Mexico boundary.

In this village once attacked by Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa, people like Johnson say they see no problem with U.S. Border Patrol keeping watch over their community of 1,600 people. And they dismiss talk by some Democratic activists who seek to "abolish ICE" — Immigration and Customs Enforcement — while also opposing Republican President Donald Trump's plan to build a massive border wall.

"People who don't live in places like this don't know what they are talking about," said Johnson, a Rhode Island transplant who has lived in Columbus for more than 30 years. "We're not for open borders. That's radical. But some border wall is a waste."

In southern New Mexico, Democrat Xochitl Torres Small is competing with Republican Yvette Herrell for the open 2nd District U.S. House seat that could help determine which party controls Congress after the midterms.

In what's expected to be a close race, the contest may come down to villages like Columbus.

Torres Small, a granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who was raised as a Mormon, has made border security and immigration reform a feature of her campaign. The attorney who has worked on water cases touts herself as someone who would reach across party lines.

Herrell, a state lawmaker and businesswoman in real estate, backs Trump's border wall and his immigration policies. She has tried to tie Torres Small to Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and her work with Planned Parenthood. Herrell also has focused on energizing conservative voters by highlighting her record as a social conservative.

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.

"This is a bellwether election that really will tell us a lot about the midterms," University of New Mexico political science professor Gabriel Sanchez said. "If Democrats don't win this seat this time, they're probably never going to win it."

It is one of many races along the U.S.-Mexico border that would determine which party controls Congress.

In Arizona, Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick is running against Republican Lea Marquez Peterson in the race to represent the state's 2nd Congressional District. That southeastern Arizona district also sits along the border.

Roberto Gutierrez, 63, who owns a grocery store in Columbus, said he hasn't decided on who he'd support in the New Mexico congressional race. A registered Republican, Gutierrez said the border wall seldom enters the mind of people in the area since a tall, metal fence seems to already do the job.

"People come into the store and I don't hear anyone talk about the wall or even border security," Gutierrez said. "There are concerned about jobs."

His brother, Salvador, 55, a gas store attendant and a Democrat, also hadn't made up his mind. Border patrol agents could use some better technology, he thinks, but no one he knows believes there should be a massive border wall.

"Instead of building some wall, why don't they use that money to pave these streets?" Salvador Gutierrez asked, referring to the town's many unpaved and damaged roads from border truck traffic.

Columbus resident Ric Lambart, 89, a retired Air Force pilot who volunteered for conservative Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, said he doesn't have a problem with Herrell or Trump pushing for a border wall — as along as wildlife can freely move back and forth.

"I'm more concerned about our water," Lambart said. "Wells are drying up. What will candidates do to protect our environment down here?"

He also hadn't made up his mind.

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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