ALBUQUERQUE — Gary Johnson is just getting warmed up.
“I mean, what does the Department of Homeland Security even do?” the former governor asks a reporter apropos of nothing as he sits around his new, sparsely furnished campaign office in downtown Albuquerque, waiting for a news conference to start.
The ensuing rant is classic Johnson, as he calls into question the very existence of a federal agency, challenges the government’s approach to national security post-2001 and generally bemoans the hassle of the Transportation Security Administration.
Johnson is back.
Nearly two years have passed since he last ran for president. The Libertarian candidate, he won 9 percent of the vote in his home state as the choice, among other things, for many who were disenchanted with the unpopular candidates of the two major parties.
Now, it is mid-September 2018 and Johnson is at full throttle yet again, stepping in to fill the Libertarian Party’s spot in the race for U.S. Senate against Democrat Martin Heinrich.
Johnson’s re-emergence is roiling what had been a quiet race. Heinrich’s Republican challenger, Mick Rich, is a political novice who has been struggling to raise money.
Johnson brings cash and national attention to the contest.
If Heinrich is shrewd and deliberate, Johnson offers something else that may upend the race: his tendency to say what he thinks pretty much all of the time.
That is his biggest selling point. It is not that Johnson is asking voters to agree with him on everything — or even most things. Instead, he is asking them to embrace the tell-it-like-it-is style of a candidate who would wreck the usual partisan binary in Congress.
“What you see is who he is,” says Diane Kinderwater, Johnson’s communications director when he was governor. “He just says what’s on his mind.”
But it’s more than that. Gary Johnson doesn’t campaign on agendas so much as he battles for a way — his way — of looking at politics.
His pitch to voters is not merely that he would support all the policies you would expect from the Libertarian Party’s contemporary standard-bearer — cutting taxes, slashing government spending, legalizing marijuana and pulling the troops out of, well, just about everywhere.
His argument is that he would be a swing vote in what will likely still be a closely divided Senate, beholden to neither the Republicans nor the Democrats. New Mexico’s senator would suddenly become the one to watch. In turn, Johnson argues he could break through the deadlock that has come to epitomize what many hate about politics today.
In his own telling, Johnson is a logical choice for a state where more and more voters are registering as independents. But this is also a state that depends on the federal government in many ways, from public lands and national labs to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. He has called for cutting or at least overhauling all of that. So, are New Mexicans really Libertarian enough for Johnson?
“Nobody’s out there with my voice,” he says.
Born in Minot, N.D., Johnson grew up in Albuquerque, where his father taught special education and his mother worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Johnson graduated from Sandia High School and studied political science at the University of New Mexico, earning his degree in 1975. A few years later, he married Dee Simms, the daughter of a prominent Albuquerque dentist (they divorced in 2006). Meanwhile, Johnson went on to parlay the handyman business he had started as a student into a busy construction company, Big J Enterprises.
Johnson was a political newcomer when he ran for governor as a Republican in 1994.
He unseated a giant of state politics, Democratic Gov. Bruce King. Johnson ran on a platform of fiscal conservatism and his outsider status. Plus, his ability to command political advertising in a way that King couldn’t was no doubt a help as voters soured on a gasoline tax increase and the incumbent King.
But Democrats still controlled the Legislature, and he regularly sparred with lawmakers as he pushed for tight budgets and advocated for policies that pointed to his Libertarian bent. He backed school vouchers, for example, signed a gambling compact for Indian-owned casinos, expanded use of private prisons and signed a repeal of a state law against Sunday liquor sales. And toward the end of his second term, he came out in support of legalizing marijuana, arguing the federal government’s war on drugs was proving to be an expensive bust.
Over time, though, critics came to call Johnson “Governor No,” as he vetoed more than 750 bills — more than any of his predecessors or any of his successors.
After leaving office in 2003 after a showdown with the Legislature that he effectively lost, Johnson stayed out of politics for a while — going back to business, climbing mountains, competing in triathlons and the like. An athlete, he has not had a drink in 31 years.
Then, when Johnson tried to make a comeback by seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2012, something did not quite fit. The tea party had washed through the GOP, and Johnson’s socially liberal views on immigration and drugs were at odds with many in the party.
So, Johnson switched parties in 2011, joining the Libertarians and running under its banner in 2012 and again in 2016.
Last time around, he seemed to have the perfect race on his hands.
Both major parties had nominated unpopular candidates. Plenty of Republicans were growing disaffected with the direction of their party, as Johnson had years earlier. It seemed like a market on which he could capitalize. Johnson also cultivated an image as an eccentric alternative — an adventurer who was open about his use of marijuana and said what he meant while also being prone to viral gaffes.
Johnson netted nearly 4.5 million votes, or 3.2 percent.
He told New Mexico Political Report that would be the end of his career as a political candidate. He got into the marijuana industry and was living near Taos Ski Valley. Still, his showing had won the Libertarian Party space on the ballot in 2018.
And two years later, it looked like Heinrich would walk to re-election.
Major players in the Republican Party stayed out of the race, expecting this election year to go against them. Only one candidate sought the party’s nomination, Albuquerque contractor Rich. And he had never run for office before.
Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn got the Libertarian nomination.
Johnson still seemed to have some appeal, though. Dunn approached the former governor over the summer about running against Heinrich instead. For a moment, it all seemed to make sense. There were murmurs that Rich would even face pressure to drop out and let Johnson take on Heinrich head-to-head. The Democrat’s campaign started getting nervous. A sleepy race was about to get a lot more interesting. A political action committee linked to Republican Sen. Rand Paul even pledged $2 million in support of Johnson.
But Rich stayed put and polls showed him splitting many of the same voters with Johnson, ultimately leaving Heinrich with what could be a fairly clear path to victory. Polls give Heinrich an edge, and national pundits such as Charlie Cook and Larry Sabato view the seat as safe for Democrats with three candidates in the running.
But with Johnson enjoying a certain celebrity status in New Mexico and more voters registering as independents, he argues there is an opening for a candidate like him.
“With 55 percent of people registering to vote as independents, that is not a group to be blown off,” Johnson says.
‘A hand grenade into the middle of all of this’
Yes, Johnson is running as a Libertarian. But his pitch is that the current Democratic-Republican split in Congress does not work for those who fall outside the major parties. Electing him would make an independent-minded senator the deciding vote on some big issues, he contends, upending congressional politics as we know it.
Just name a touchy subject in Washington, and it is easy to see how.
Johnson says he supports making it as easy as possible for anyone to get a visa to come to the country for work, contending migrants would be willing to stand in line rather than come here without papers if that line were actually moving. He opposes building a wall on the Mexican border and has said that while there should be security, the government should also make it easier to get products and people through checkpoints and ports.
What about climate change?
Johnson says he is not smart enough to speak to the science of the issue.
“Should we clean things up? Sure,” he says. But the free market will be able to respond to environmental issues faster than the government, he adds.
Legalize marijuana. End military deployments overseas. Abolish the U.S. Department of Education. And do not just cut taxes, as Trump has done, but slash government spending, too.
If it seems like Johnson is all over the place, it is almost as if that is the point.
Johnson says Heinrich lines up with the Democrats; the Republican Party is moving to the right. Johnson is just moving.
“Electing me to the U.S. Senate,” Gary Johnson says, in a way only Gary Johnson can say it, “is throwing a hand grenade into the middle of all of this.”