When candidates for a high-profile Senate race face off in a debate next month, there might be an empty podium onstage.
KOB-TV and the Santa Fe New Mexican will host debates in early October featuring candidates from this year’s races for the 3rd Congressional District and U.S. Senate seats, the TV station and newspaper have confirmed.
But U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a Northern New Mexico Democrat running for the Senate, has declined his invitation to participate in an Oct. 5 debate. KOB-TV, Republican Mark Ronchetti and Libertarian Bob Walsh said they will move forward and hold the debate without the congressman.
“The reality is KOB has been doing debates for more than half a century,” said Michelle Donaldson, KOB-TV’s vice president and general manager. “I don’t feel comfortable lessening our commitment because one of the candidates hasn’t committed.”
The three candidates are vying for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by longtime Democratic Sen. Tom Udall, who is retiring.
An Oct. 8 debate will feature Santa Fe attorney Teresa Leger Fernandez, the Democratic nominee in the 3rd Congressional District, and her Republican opponent, Alexis Martinez Johnson.
Ronchetti accused Luján of trying to avoid debating his opponents in public and said Luján’s absence at the KOB/New Mexican debate would deprive voters of an opportunity to get to know the candidates.
“When you’re running for an open Senate seat, to think that you don’t have to go in front of the people of your state or you want to avoid it, that should tell you something as a voter,” said Ronchetti, who was a longtime meteorologist at KRQE-TV in Albuquerque.
Luján countered that he has agreed to take part in two other debates — one sponsored by KOAT-TV and another on PBS-affiliate KNME-TV — and those opportunities will be enough for voters to hear the candidates’ positions on the issues. He also said he has been giving interviews to media outlets and holding virtual town halls and other events.
“I’ve been talking to people every day,” Luján said. “I’m going to do my due diligence to stay connected with voters and make myself available as I always have.”
Donaldson said she views debates as “more important than ever” this year because there are fewer in-person campaign events than usual.
“Now is not the time to reduce access to the electorate,” she said.
The coronavirus pandemic has indeed made for an unusual election year throughout the state and nation, and the U.S. Senate race in New Mexico is no exception.
Luján has held numerous “virtual road trips” using videoconferencing with Democratic local officials, party members and supporters in counties from around the state. He’s also held roundtable talks with health care workers, educators and veterans.
“I like being around people, and that’s been the toughest part with all the challenges associated with running a campaign in the face of a public emergency,” he said.
On the Republican side, Ronchetti has been traveling around the state to have in-person meetings with small groups, and he also has been organizing meetings on Zoom.
“It’s a bummer, but you just deal with it how you have to,” he said. “It’s a difficult time for a lot of people, and I think there are so many people now who don’t know how they’re going to pay their rent. So running a campaign is not a big deal in comparison to that.”
Even with the lack of in-person campaigning, the candidates have had no problem lobbing attacks at each other.
Luján has drawn a distinction between his long experience in Washington and his Republican opponent’s “celebrity” image as a well-known meteorologist in New Mexico. He’s also accused Ronchetti of trying to deflect attention from his lack of experience in politics.
“It’s not about the celebrity,” Luján said. “It’s not about being in the limelight. It’s about getting the work done for the people that you represent.”
Ronchetti, for his part, has sought to portray Luján as a “creature of Washington” who hasn’t gotten enough done during his 12 years as a congressman. He has cast himself as the opposite — someone who isn’t a politician.
“He’s spent most of his adult life as a politician, and I think he’s been ineffective,” Ronchetti said of Luján. “I’m not interested in climbing the Washington ladder, and I think he has been.”
On the issues, there are clear differences on the candidates’ positions, too.
Ronchetti accused the New Mexico congressional delegation, including Luján, of impeding a plan to deploy federal law enforcement agents to Albuquerque.
“Our federal delegation should be a conduit to bring in more help to help us fight crime,” he said. “But you’ve heard crickets from these guys on this.”
The federal government announced in July a crime-fighting program called “Operation Legend” would be expanded to include Albuquerque.
At the time, Udall and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., criticized the program as part of an effort to conduct “militarized interventions in American cities,” while Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham warned she would call for prosecution if federal agents committed any civil rights abuses in New Mexico.
Luján pushed back on Ronchetti’s criticism. He said he did support more funding for Albuquerque to fight crime when he voted in favor of a federal initiative to fund a program that later became Operation Legend.
“Mr. Ronchetti here is trying to take attention away from the fact that he doesn’t have a record on any one of these issues,” Luján said.
For New Mexico political pundits, chatter around the Senate race has centered on the issue of the KOB/New Mexican debate.
University of New Mexico political science professor Lonna Atkeson said she believes Luján declined to take part because he believes he’s winning in the polls and is trying to avoid any missteps or controversy.
“It’s sort of like he’s too cool for this election,” said Atkeson, director of UNM’s Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy.
Longtime New Mexico pollster Brian Sanderoff said a lower-profile campaign due to the pandemic could favor Luján, who is perceived as the favorite because of his fundraising advantage and wealth of experience in Congress.
“I don’t think anyone would doubt that Ronchetti is the underdog, and so the lower profile the campaign is, the less likely that the favorite candidate would stumble,” he said.
Luján might also have the political trends on his side, given Democrats overwhelmingly defeated Republicans in recent statewide and federal races in New Mexico. The governor and all five members of the state’s congressional delegation are Democrats.
“New Mexico has been trending blue for quite some time now,” Sanderoff said. “It’s always challenging for Republicans in those races.”