New Mexico’s oilfield jobs are legendary, but comparatively rare.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) released a dozen negative ads on Oct. 11, none of which say anything about Republican members of Congress or their platforms. Instead, this 11th-hour mudslinging focuses on attacking Democrats — often without basis. And in the case of its smear of Gabe Vasquez, the Democratic challenger in New Mexico’s District 2, the NRCC makes just two claims and manages to get both of them wrong on the facts.
Admittedly, political ads from both parties often display only a slight tether to reality, but 12 seconds into the 30-second spot against Vasquez, the voiceover says, “Vasquez would kill 62,000 New Mexico oil and gas jobs.” And in those 10 words, the NRCC manages to chalk up two errors.
One: The number 62,000 comes from a 2020 press release from the American Petroleum Institute (API) that talks about all of the jobs that would be lost in New Mexico if then-candidate Joe Biden implemented a proposed pause on federal oil and gas leasing — not just oil and gas jobs. That press release has nothing to do with Vasquez. And while in the past he has called for carefully ending oil and gas production, he now says, “We can protect the livelihoods of our workers and our communities with responsible development of oil and gas.”
It’s similar to a pivot made by another New Mexican Democrat angling for national office. When running for Congress in 2020, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said, “I am wholeheartedly against fracking and drilling on public lands.” But this month, her Bureau of Land Management offered oil and gas leases on thousands of acres of federal land across the West, including more than 3,000 in New Mexico.
Further, the API was wrong. Biden implemented his oil and gas leasing pause in early 2021, and oilfield employment actually increased.
The Inflation Reduction Act is set to increase oil and gas production in New Mexico, which may well lead to more jobs in the sector.
Two: Vasquez could not kill 62,000 oilfield jobs in New Mexico even if he wanted to. According to the most recent figures from the state’s Department of Workforce Solutions (the agency that tracks the numbers that relate to jobs), there were only 20,800 people in the mining and logging sector in August of this year, the most recent month for which numbers are available. (The agency doesn’t separate out numbers for oil and gas workers specifically, but they make up the majority in that heading.) There are 845,000 jobs in New Mexico, and those 20,800 don’t make the list of top 10 employment fields in the state. There aren’t a lot of those jobs, but they do pay fairly well, when they exist.
And they don’t always exist. The industry goes through regular boom/bust cycles with New Mexico’s biggest boom cresting at 29,000 jobs in December 2014 and busting to 19,000 in 2016. The next boom hit 26,000 jobs in 2019 before busting to 17,000 during the pandemic in 2020. Currently, while oil and gas production is booming to record levels, jobs have not returned to their pre-pandemic peak, and that has everything to do with the nature of the energy business, and almost nothing to do with any one candidate for Congress.
Back in the ad, three seconds later, the voice accuses Vasquez of wanting to raise taxes on low income New Mexicans, but the citations at the bottom of the screen lead to nothing resembling the claim. Robert Phillips, a senior Vasquez campaign staffer, says that the idea may come from the candidate’s support of the Inflation Reduction Act. He says, “Multiple fact checkers including Politifact and the Associated Press have rated these claims as false.” The IRA isn’t expected to raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 a year, and it is set to increase oil and gas production in New Mexico, which may well lead to more jobs in the sector — yet another refutation of the ad’s job loss claims.
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“Do ads work?” asks Tim Krebs, chair of the political science department at the University of New Mexico. “Yeah, ads work.”
Just not always in the way people intend.
The NRCC’s baseless claims against Gabe Vasquez are troubling on their own, but they may backfire on anyone hoping to benefit from them. Krebs says that unfounded attack ads can betray weakness in the attacker’s campaign. “In a lot of cases,” he says, “if they’re going on air with an ad that’s false, it’s a sign of desperation.”
The NRCC ad says it is “not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee,” but there is only one person it really benefits: Republican House incumbent Yvette Herrell, who is fighting a surprisingly close reelection race against Vasquez. Only a little more than a percentage point separates them in the latest polls, even though Herrell has outraised Vasquez $2.5 million to $1.7 million, according to the latest numbers from the Federal Election Commission.
In the past, her district was a conservative stronghold, running from the southern edge of the San Juan Basin straight across the state and covering all of New Mexico’s portion of the Permian Basin. This may partially explain the false claims about oilfield jobs in the ad. Following some redistricting jiu-jitsu after the 2020 Census, her district lost half of its Permian Basin acreage to a district held by a Democrat and picked up the western neighborhoods of Albuquerque, a much less conservative clutch of voters.
“Regular, average voters, by the time the election comes around, they’re pretty darn sick of it. They want their regular commercials to come back.”
~ Tim Krebs, University of New Mexico
Krebs says, “We’ve known for a few [election] cycles that the outside group ads are just disproportionately negative.” He says that the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling of 2010 opened a floodgate of advertising money and shady claims from groups not directly affiliated to a particular candidate — groups like the NRCC.
“That’s the whole point of having outside groups,” Krebs says. “They’re trying to do, in some ways, what the campaigns either don’t want to do or don’t have the resources to do.” And outside groups can play fast and loose with the facts in ways that candidates might not want to.
“They pretty much say whatever they want,” he says.
Vasquez’s response to the ad is itself a polished bit of electioneering: “This ad is another attempt by national Republicans to distract from Yvette Herrell’s disastrous votes to protect the corporate CEOs who are hiking gas prices on American families,” he says. The jab pokes at some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, which also operate in New Mexico, and have made record profits in the last couple of business quarters.
Herrell’s office forwarded an inquiry from Capital & Main to the public relations firm running her campaign, which did not respond to emailed questions. NRCC Spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair did not return calls asking about the advertisement.
Krebs has studied campaign ads over the years, and while he isn’t working on a related project now, he still pays attention. “I do watch them,” he says. “I don’t turn the channel.”
He doesn’t expect that most people share his interest in campaign ads, though. “Regular, average voters, by the time the election comes around, they’re pretty darn sick of it,” he says. “They want their regular commercials to come back.”
That won’t happen until Nov. 9.
Meanwhile, the NRCC released a slew of new ads last week that play similarly fast and loose with the facts, including another spot about Vasquez. The first claim in it comes from a petroleum industry press release about a petroleum industry-funded economic study that posits 134,000 jobs in New Mexico sprout both directly and indirectly from the state’s petroleum industry. Economists use an “employment multiplier” to calculate the number of indirect jobs supported by a worker, and according to the independent Economic Policy Institute, mining has an employment multiplier of 3.9, meaning this state’s 20,800 mining and logging jobs (piled together again for convenience’s sake) may support 81,120 other jobs, for a total of 101,920. That’s not inconsequential, but it’s also not 134,000.
The ad then quotes Vasquez saying he’d like to shut down oil and gas production, but neglects to quote him in context. The words come from a podcast he hosted in 2018 where he makes clear that he wants to move “responsibly away to a clean energy economy that supports everybody, that supports these communities that for many years — even in boom and bust years — have relied on those [oil and gas] jobs.”