Politician without a party

Expecting an anti-Trump wave, Dunn might be just the candidate the GOP needs. So why isn't he running for anything?

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Aubrey Dunn Jr., the state land commissioner and one of New Mexico's leading Republicans, does not waste words.

He says the state's GOP is not going far in 2018.

It's a stunning thing to hear from a man who, perhaps only a year ago, seemed to have a big future in the Republican Party.

Dunn, 61, considered running for governor next year, then shifted his attention to Congress after U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce of Hobbs became the Republicans' early favorite and only candidate for governor. Just months later, Dunn dropped out of the congressional race, and he now says Pearce is probably heading for defeat.

"The anti-Trump wave is going to be so strong, I don't think Steve Pearce has a chance," Dunn said from behind his desk overlooking the Santa Fe River one morning earlier this week, assessing the party's future and his own.

An unusually independent voice in a hyperpartisan era, Dunn is the sort of conservative Republicans used to elect.

And if there is to be an anti-Trump backlash, as Dunn expects, there would seem to be plenty of room in next year's election for self-described, libertarian-leaning Republicans like him. But Dunn has not only dropped out of the race for Congress, he has stepped down from his county Republican Party and flirted with the idea of running for office as a Libertarian.

Dunn says he has not made up his mind about his next political move, including whether he will run for re-election. Plenty of races are still wide open. And the question lingers: How did one of the best hopes for the GOP -- a man who accomplished the often-difficult feat of winning a statewide office as a Republican -- become a man without aparty?

The land commissioner says factions have split the state GOP, and

he does not really fit into either of the factions -- the group that supports Gov. Susana Martinez or the crowd aligned more closely with the state party's new chairman, Ryan Cangiolosi, a former Martinez staffer who has been at odds with the governor's camp.

The schism has been evident everywhere, from the Albuquerque mayoral election (the state party was staunchly behind City Councilor Dan Lewis, who lost in a runoff) to the 2nd Congressional District in Southern New Mexico (where Martinez's former spokesman, Joseph Cueto, is now running the campaign of former Hobbs Mayor Monty Newman).

And that left someone like Dunn seemingly split off altogether.

While Democrats trudge through crowded primary elections, Dunn offers a picture of a Republican Party beset by internecine battles and special interests grappling with its identity in a purple state during the Trump age.

Many Santa Fe residents' introduction to Dunn may have been a pump jack.

The rancher and banker had never won an office before narrowly ousting Democrat Ray Powell in 2014. And in one of his first acts as land commissioner, Dunn replaced a sculpture outside his office on Old Santa Fe Trail with amodel of an oil industry workhorse.

It was an ode, his office said, to the importance of oil and gas production on state land. Like it or not, New Mexico still relies on those fossil fuels to pay for public education and much more. And the State Land Office manages about 13 million mineral acres along with 9 million surface acres that generate hundreds of millions of dollars ayear.

But some took the solar-powered pump jack as a sign of what Dunn's critics had argued during the election. The Torrance County Republican, detractors argued, would be too cozy with the oil industry.

Nearly three years later, however, the oil industry would probably say he is not nearly cozy enough.

Dunn has frustrated drillers and fellow Republicans -- Martinez not least among them.

And the commissioner has irked plenty of others, too, from environmentalists who support regulations on gas flaring that he opposes to sportsmen riled by efforts to change fees for accessing state land.

"He was not pro-one-way or pro-the-other-way," said Republican Public Regulation Commissioner Pat Lyons, who is running to succeed Dunn at the State Land Office. "He was doing his job. I guess people don't like that."

Dunn announced in July that he would run for Pearce's seat in Congress. And at first, he seemed to have the odds in his favor.

He comes from a prominent family. His father, Aubrey Dunn Sr., was a Democratic legislator and ran the Alamogordo Daily News. Dunn Jr. had gone into banking and ranching and was well-connected in Southern New Mexico. He also possesses name recognition as land commissioner. Winning over a right-leaning congressional district, it seems, should not have been as hard as winning a statewide race.

But the Republican primary grew crowded. State Rep. Yvette Herrell got into the race, as did Newman, a former state party chairman who enlisted the help of a firm run by the governor's political consultant, Jay McCleskey.

In the ensuing weeks, disagreements with the governor burst into the open. Dunn and Martinez both sit on the State Investment Council, which manages money generated by state lands. And Martinez pushed a new ethics code that Dunn describes as a "gag order" -- a means of stifling dissent on the committee.

The council voted to sanction Dunn and a few other members when they would not sign the code. He says he believes it was partly an effort to damage his bid for Congress.

Meanwhile, some in the oil and gas industry -- particularly influential in Southern New Mexico -- clashed with Dunn over his plan to restrict the use of fresh water from a certain Southeastern New Mexico aquifer. Independent producers in particular wanted to use water from the Ogallala, while Dunn wanted to limit use.

Other candidates seemed to have different factions of the party behind them. Dunn says he began to feel like aman without a party.

In September, Dunn announced he would withdraw from the race for Congress.

He expected the race would get dirty.

"I have no desire to be in the fight," Dunn said.

That may be hard to believe, coming from a man who had just undertaken a defamation case against a Democratic candidate for land commissioner who was running radio ads insinuating Dunn stands to improperly benefit from the construction of a power line.

Perhaps more importantly, he added, "I wasn't Republican enough to win the primary."

Dunn has flirted with running for governor as a Libertarian (his son, Blair Dunn, ran Gary Johnson's presidential campaign in New Mexico last year and floated a trial balloon about his dad's future as a Libertarian).

Though a Libertarian would have a nearly impossible time winning, Aubrey Dunn says, the party made a decent showing in the presidential race here last year.

The party's candidate, former Gov. Johnson, got about 9 percent of the vote last year, while Donald Trump won 40 percent, falling 8 points behind Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Yet for all the talk about Libertarians, the commissioner says he has yet to change his voter registration.

Still, if he is not done with politics, where does he turn? Lyons already has jumped in to succeed him as commissioner of public lands. And while he praises Dunn's management of the Land Office, Lyons is not backing out of the race.

All of which leaves Dunn in suspended animation at a time when the Republican Party is trying to fill its bench for 2018. Observers, once so likely to talk about his future, find themselves concentrating on his past.

"His initial election was surprising," said Brian Sanderoff, president of the public opinion firm Research and Polling in Albuquerque. "He ran a good campaign, and he had a really effective ad he played incessantly," Sanderoff added, referring to a television spot that insinuated Powell's management of state lands effectively ruined a family's orchard business.

Plus, 2014 was a big year for Republicans.

But that was then.

What has stayed constant is the power of the oil and gas industry on politics in the south. Republicans, Sanderoff said, tend to be more careful about upsetting the influential sector.

"Dunn did and probably paid a political price for it as well," he said.

In the meantime, the Democratic Party's primary for land commissioner has been shaken up.

Powell was running to make a comeback but suddenly dropped out, citing health concerns, and Democratic state Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richards of Los Alamos entered the race with his endorsement. Meanwhile, New Mexico Wildlife Federation Director Garrett VeneKlasen and state Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup are running for their party's nomination, too.

Dunn said that if he knew Powell was going to drop out on the Democratic side, he would have run for re-election.

Then he fiddled around with his cellphone for a moment to pull up a list and began rattling off his accomplishments as land commissioner -- record revenue, efforts to clean up watersheds, a plan to trade land with the Navajo Nation.

For a moment, Dunn sounded like he was campaigning.

"You're always running for something," he said, reclining in his chair. "You just may not know what."

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican­.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.

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