Libertarian Gary Johnson was by far the most animated in the hourlong debate broadcast on KOAT-TV, turning what might have otherwise been a straightforward candidate forum into something far less predictable.
Two is a race. Three is a crowd. U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich took hits from both sides in the first televised debate of his re-election campaign. Republican Mick Richand former Gov. Gary Johnson, a Libertarian, clashed with the Democrat on everything from health care and education to the Space Force and the crucial question of who is most New Mexican.
But with Heinrich mostly unfazed and the candidates contrasting sharply in personality, policy and even choice of ties, the question now is whether anyone managed to bruise the incumbent Democrat enough in a three-way race that looks like Heinrich’s to lose as voters begin heading to the polls.
After an hour of back-and-forth, the candidates ended up offering very different visions of what New Mexico’s U.S. senator should be.
Johnson set out contending that the nation’s financial deficit is the biggest issue of all — a time bomb that calls for reining in government spending and undertaking big changes to major programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. The two-time presidential candidate urged an embrace of the free market to fix — well, name it. He touted his support for school vouchers, argued for making it as easy possible to get a visa to come work in the United States and proposed a sort of pay-as-you-go health insurance system.
“Let the free market loose,” he said after calling for abolishing the U.S. Department of Education.
Johnson’s feisty pronouncements were the underpinnings of his biggest pitch: that he would be an independent voice in Washington and a sought-after swing vote who would upset the current partisan status quo.
Heinrich offered himself as a bulwark against the likes of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, proposals to cut government programs that have an outsize role in New Mexico and calls for raising the retirement age under Social Security. In turn, he defended the Affordable Care Act as a boost for New Mexico, both in terms of expanding the health care industry and broadening coverage to hundreds of thousands of residents.
At the beginning of the debate, he invoked his parents — a factory worker and utility lineman, neither of whom went to college — and Heinrich pined for a time when such workers could get ahead more easily.
“For too many New Mexicans, for too many people all across this country, that’s what’s changed,” he said. “… I think New Mexicans deserve an economy that works for all of us, not just a few.”
The freshman senator largely touted Democratic priorities for a base that has probably never been so important to him as now, while also talking about working across the aisle on issues such as immigration.
Rich, meanwhile, offered up a vision of New Mexico as a state that is hurting from drugs and economic malaise while forsaken by its political leaders. He spoke in dark terms about the border with Mexico, accused Heinrich of failing to win over sufficient work for the state’s military bases and national laboratories and argued the Affordable Care Act is a broken promise that has not made insurance more affordable for many.
Throughout, he accused Heinrich of putting party first in Washington. “He has become a Washington politician. He has abandoned New Mexico,” Rich said in what was just one of many references of late to the fact that Heinrich’s family relocated to the Washington, D.C., area several years ago.
It was a theme Johnson seized on, too, questioning why Heinrich had opposed opening up airspace over the Gila Wilderness for military training sites when the Libertarian argued the state should welcome the Air Force with open arms.
Throughout the debate, Rich and Johnson targeted Heinrich as ineffective or out of step, talking over each other at times and working in sideways jabs. But no one seemed to land a knockout punch. And New Mexico’s political landscape is somewhat different than it was six years ago, when Heinrich won his first term.
The state was not far removed from having had a Republican U.S. senator, and the GOP’s Susana Martinez would go on to win re-election as governor in 2014. Today, Democrats view the state as tilting further into the column of reliably blue states. Whether that trend can hold is certainly up for debate. But at least for this year, the party is expecting some big wins.
Closely watched analysts, such as Larry Sabato and Charlie Cook, view the race as a safe one for Democrats. In fact, conventional wisdom is that it remains all the safer for Heinrich with three candidates in the race. The race had been passing quietly until August, with Rich struggling to gain traction as a political newcomer and Heinrich sitting atop a $4 million campaign war chest. But then Johnson said he was considering taking the Libertarian spot on the ballot.
Rich stayed in the race despite murmurs that he would face pressure to drop out and let Johnson take on Heinrich head-to-head. Still, Johnson brought excitement and money to the race.
The conservative Protect Freedom PAC, which describes itself as backing prospective allies of Republican Sen. Rand Paul, announced earlier this month it would pour $2 million into a statewide ad campaign supporting Johnson.
Heinrich knocked Johnson for vetoing pay raises for teachers when the Libertarian was a Republican governor. And at points, the senator seemed to try brushing off the Libertarian.
“Usually, Gary, when I see you it’s on a ski lift,” he said at one point.
Heinrich again criticized Rich over his comments defending Kavanaugh. And he questioned a project the Rich family’s construction company has undertaken at New Mexico Military Institute that is behind schedule.
Fittingly, though, Johnson was by far the most animated in the hourlong debate broadcast on KOAT-TV, turning what might have otherwise been a straightforward candidate forum into something far less predictable.
While Heinrich and Rich offered messages sure to resonate with their parties, Johnson aimed his appeal squarely at the independent voters who would make the difference if the incumbent Democrat is to face any real challenge, pledging he would not be — in his words — a wallflower.
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