Copyright (C) 2018 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico voters have an unusual mix of candidates to choose from in this year’s three-way race for the U.S. Senate.
Challenging incumbent Democrat Martin Heinrich are an Albuquerque contractor making his first run for office and a former New Mexico governor who’s campaigned for president twice – and who joined the race just 2 1/2 months before Election Day.
The outcome will determine whether Heinrich, a former Albuquerque city councilor, returns to the U.S. Senate for a second, six-year term.
Heinrich is campaigning as an outdoorsman and engineer at heart who’s steadily working on New Mexico’s behalf, avoiding the daily partisan combat in Washington, D.C.
Republican Mick Rich, a construction contractor who has worked on schools and churches throughout the state, is asking voters to “send a hard hat to Washington” to focus on jobs and opportunity for the state.
And Libertarian Gary Johnson, who served as governor from 1995 to 2002, is pitching himself as the ultimate swing vote in a Senate with a one-vote Republican majority. He joined the race in mid-August after fellow Libertarian Aubrey Dunn, the state’s land commissioner, withdrew.
The campaign comes as New Mexico remains heavily dependent on the federal government. The state is home to two national laboratories, three Air Force bases and more than a dozen national monuments, parks and trails.
Nearly half of the state’s southern border is adjacent to Mexico, thrusting the state into the debate over whether to build the border wall sought by President Donald Trump – an issue that divides the Senate candidates.
Heinrich and Johnson oppose construction of the wall.
Rich said he supports Trump’s commitment to securing the border, including a wall “in some places” and a fence in others.
But Rich also insisted in a recent interview that he would be an independent voice in the U.S. Senate.
“I’m not running to be the president’s senator or Republican leadership’s senator – I’m running to be New Mexico’s senator,” Rich told the Journal.
Johnson, meanwhile, said he couldn’t be more of an opposite to Trump on immigration. If the United States ever builds a border wall, he said, it will eventually be torn down.
“I think Trump’s rhetoric is horrible,” Johnson said. “I think he’s sowing seeds of distrust that will last the rest of my lifetime.”
Heinrich said he favors a bipartisan approach to immigration, which he said shouldn’t be used as a “wedge issue.”
“I fundamentally believe that this is a president who is not in line with New Mexicans’ values,” he said.
A Journal Poll in mid-September gave Heinrich a comfortable lead in the three-way race – 21 percentage points ahead of Rich, his closest competitor. He also had a fundraising advantage at the end of June, the last time candidates filed with the Federal Election Commission.
“What I’ve tried to do is not be a voice in the day-to-day partisan rhetoric,” Heinrich said in an interview, “but a consistent, hardworking member who’s able to do really tangible things for my state, for the country.”
He is a member of two Senate committees that he says are incredibly important for New Mexico – Armed Services and Energy and Natural Resources. Heinrich said he’s helped secure military construction funding to position the state’s military installations for the future, in addition to working on federal legislation in 2015 that he said opened up overseas markets for New Mexico oil and gas.
Heinrich said he is also working to make Albuquerque a leader in the development of directed energy – lasers and microwaves, for example, that can be used to shoot down drones in the battlefield. New Mexico’s national laboratories, military installations and private companies based in Albuquerque make it an ideal location for directed-energy research, he said.
“I would like to be seen as somebody who is going to work every single day and no matter how vitriolic things have become in Washington, looks for ways to move the ball down the field for New Mexico, even though that means working with Republicans on most days,” Heinrich said.
Rich is campaigning as someone who would bring “hard-hat values” to Washington, D.C. The state is losing young people, he said, and the unemployment rate remains among the highest in the nation.
He pitches himself as a job creator, not a politician.
If elected, Rich said, he would utilize connections built through his business background and fight for funding and important missions for New Mexico’s two national laboratories.
And he hasn’t been shy about criticizing his opponents.
Rich has said he’s confident he will have the support of conservative voters, and he likened Johnson to former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
At a significant fundraising disadvantage in the race, Rich has criticized Heinrich for, among other things, relocating his family to suburban Washington, D.C., saying the move shows Heinrich’s “heart” is no longer in New Mexico.
He has also blasted Heinrich for voting against confirmation of U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and for prioritizing environmental issues.
“We have a senator that’s focused on wilderness and monuments,” Rich said. “We don’t have a wilderness and monuments problem – we have a jobs problem.”
Johnson, meanwhile, is a familiar name to New Mexico voters. He beat Democratic Gov. Bruce King in 1994 to launch his political career and won re-election in 1998. He was a Republican at the time.
Johnson – a businessman who has worked in construction and the cannabis industry – later switched his affiliation to Libertarian and ran for president in 2012 and 2016. He lives in Taos and has competed in triathlons and the Ironman World Championship.
He would be the perfect fit for a swing vote in the U.S. Senate, he said, where Republicans now hold 51 of 100 seats.
“If anything comes down to a swing vote,” Johnson said, “I think I’m the guy you want. Whether you agree or disagree with me, I think people recognize I have told the truth – that there is an honesty and integrity” to his approach to politics.
Johnson names the federal budget deficit as a defining issue he’d tackle. He wants to be known as the “budget hawk” in Washington.
Too many senators, Johnson said, see the job as “all about bellying up to the trough, and the last thing we need is more spending in Washington.”
He favors a variety of legislation to reshape marijuana laws – including a change that would allow cannabis to be the subject of research, a scientific standard for what constitutes intoxication if someone uses marijuana and a process to pardon people convicted of marijuana crimes.