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.”

Reporter

Jens Gould covers politics for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Mexico City, a regular contributor for TIME in California, and produced the video series Bravery Tapes.

(59) comments

Cynthia Paxton

Ben Ray Lujan IS NOT THE INCUMBENT.

Thom Wilson

......yes, it's political. Maybe Ben Ray doesn't "deserve" to represent us as a U.S.Senator, but a vote for Mark Ronchetti is a vote for Mitch McConnell and the trump cabal. I'm thinking of: the next SCOTUS, over 200 conservative judges appointed in last 4 years, the end of Voice of America, the end of Stars & Stripes, the end of EPA, the end of Obamacare, the end of US Post Office, you get the picture - changes to the fundamental structures of the U.S. Stop the Madness! Vote Democratic! Vote Often!

Shawn Chafins

He still isn't getting my vote. It's not the end of life or the post office etc. This way of thinking is why New Mexicans like myself are not buying into it anymore. It hasn't worked in the past with all the broken promises and we don't have the right person to get the job done.

Comment deleted.
Shawn Chafins

Tooshay

Paul White

He refused to meet with his constituents regarding Aamodt and voted against the wishes of the majority of his constituents, lost the respect of his neighbors.

Samuel Herrera

Good. Ben Ray has nothing to gain and everything to lose by debating two losers. Let the white guys debate themselves into oblivion.

Augustin de la Sierra

I wish the New Mexico Democratic Machine had picked a brighter person to run for

Udall's seat. I disdain Lujan's lack of intelligence. His staff lacks manners, and I have doubts about their smarts as well. But as the Machine knows well, Democrats like myself will nonetheless vote for Lujan for the Senate. Why? Because Lujan's votes in the House are pretty much the way I sould vote. Because this country cannot afford another Supreme Court confirmation by a Republican-controlled Senate. Lujan at least is smart to be a party loyalist. He is smart to avoid debates. It is a difficult job being constantly scrutinized and attacked. It says a lot that anyone, including Lujan, would want to serve in public office. New Mexico could do a lot worse.

Katherine Martinez

Augustin, I truly appreciate your honesty; but how sad that Northern NM politics has come to this, choosing the bottom of the barrel because 'the machine' dictates a dynasty must rule this region until kingdom come. Very sad.

Katherine Martinez

Sure sure, two out of three debates. Let us bow down and genuflect to the Lujan dynasty for another 30 years. He is showing his Northern NM privilege. Very presumptuous and arrogant. See: coward.

Orlie Romero

Anything and everything anti Pelosi is fantastic, she basically lost 25% of the democratic vote by blaming the working class for her hair ordeal.

The dems have become odd, strange non logical thinking and acting cowards. No one wants a politician anymore, the country and world is evolving.

Matt Matadoro

Math alert! Hilarious, you probably still think Mexico is going to pay for the wall don't ya? Too funny. Gotcha...that's Trumpista of you. How's that "Strategery" working for ya? Exactly. Sell silly elsewhere, Pelosi has been slapping Trump silly since day one. Focus on the real issue, Trump's obedience to Putin and unwillingness to protect our deployed troops from Russia. SAD!

Thomas Franks

What a nasty name-calling conversation. Is this what passes for debate in New Mexico? Shame!

Peter Wyman

What is Benny afraid of?

Diane Denish

NOthing...and especially not a light weight like Ronchetti who had a hard time getting the weather right....

Tim Herrera

Says the lady who couldn’t debate and told Susana “you gave your staff big fat boners”, lol.

Tim Herrera

Says the lady that couldn’t debate and told Susana “ you gave your staff big fat boners.” Lol.

Comment deleted.
Carlos Montoya

Amén!!

Lee DiFiore

BRL is a man of, to be polite, modest intelligence. The more debates, the more likely that is to become evident to the voters.

Mike Garcia

Lujan feels he doesn't need to compete for his job as the incumbent. This is highly disappointing. He feels his "record" speaks for itself, which is?

Carlos Montoya

Amén!!

Cynthia Paxton

He is not the incumbent, although he is acting like he is.

James D....

🤔 let’s face it, Ben Ray Luján has NEVER passed ONE-1 piece of legislation! 12 years and not one bill! He boasts in his commercials but has done NOTHING as our representative.

Ben Ray Luján will not debate because frankly, he has no significant achievements of his own. Now he’s trying to dodge a debate? Maybe he’s afraid because Candidate Mark Ronchetti will show him for what he really is, a failure. Ben Ray Lujan has already lost so much support from many of his constituents because they already know he’s in it for himself. Vote Mark Ronchetti! We need someone who’s agenda is representing the people of New Mexico not, his own ambitions and interests.

James D....

Forgot to mention, Kob tv won’t allow Ben Ray Luján to bring his cue cards.

Matt Matadoro

What is it with Trumpistas and simple math? Lujan is winning and will win. What's there to debate? A weather guy who's trying to sell us on his inexperience? Look around! Inexperience like Trump's is why unemployment has DOUBLED since Obama, Covid 19 deaths 1,000 per DAY! Total CV-19 deaths to date already exceeding US war dead in WWI, Vietnam War, Korean War COMBINED. Soon by end of October the CV-19 deaths will exceed our TOTAL US war dead of WWII. To say nothing of the hundreds of thousands who obviously have become disabled from CV-19. Ronchetti is going to get annihilated at the polls for good reason---no more amateurs needed.

Katherine Martinez

Here is the simple math Matt: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/taostownnewmexico,NM/PST045219. You are part of the centuries old heard being mislead by the Northern New Mexico political dynasties.....the entitled, privileged, diva, prima donna's who presume the right to rule this region of our State for another century. You reap what you sow.

Katherine Martinez

*misled*, lest the liberal spelling authorities come after me.

Shawn Chafins

Get real, the Governor's shut down the states, thus no work! That's where the unemployment comes from. This culture has to change within the state on this side of politics. Stop putting the blame on everyone else and instead of reacting, be proactive and lead by example. If you read what the Dept of Health's mission statement says that it is to basically know and let us know if infectious disease before it gets to us. Again another failed public servant. As a northern New Mexican it's a shame no one wants to Admit fault within the party.

I hope this might open your eyes from worshipping public servant families that are not cutting it. As you can see, change is happening within the party. People want good results and are tired of the blame, not my fault attitudes.

Richard Reinders

Every campaign in 11 years Lujan talks about people in his district without running water, he is saying the same thing this time so what has he done for the Navajo people and people without running water in the 11 years, all talk no action

Amy Christiansen

Why are all Democrats afraid of debating this year???? Is it because they know the Republicans are goinng to sweep the elections anyway???

Amber Espinosa-Trujillo

Incumbents who won't debate just count on an uninformed electorate to keep them in office. As #2 in the House, what has he done for New Mexico?

Nicoletta Munroe

Lujan the candidate lacks credibility with a record of supporting the nuclear industry, to the detriment of the environment. Lujan lacks the confidence of the people because he does not possess a real bachelor degree. We are launching an inadequate candidate to represent us in Washington who is not honest enough to admit that his bachelor degree is a forged document. When a candidate lacks honesty and education, their skill to stand and fight is diminished because they lack the intellectual strength to construct argument. We deserve a quality candidate, who will stand for the environment, who has completed their education, who is honest about their own level. It is unrealistic for Mr. Lujan to go to Washington. Demand candidates whom are educated, honest, and realistic.

Tim Herrera

When you have nothing of substance to run on or no significant bills that you have sponsored to speak of, the out of sight and running on name only is the strategy one employs. This is no longer the gerrymandered House 3 district that was gifted to you. This is the entire State and the people of the State are harder to fool than the die hard Democrat sheep in the North. We deserve fair and just Representation and this guy isn’t the answer. Let’s put some new blood in Congress and vote for Mark Ronchetti. I say we have more to lose if we stick to the same formula that has let us down for the last 11 years.

Carlos Montoya

Lest we forget what his daddy did for him!!

Diane Denish

This sounds like someone who resents a strong family of public service. Shame.

Shawn Chafins

He still has to put one shoe on at a time like the rest of us.

Diane Denish

Most people think protecting pre-existing conditions, expanding the Affordable Care Act, helping the dreamers dream and fighting for strong reproductive rights, civil rights, and equal rights under the law are things of substance. Forecast: Blue Skies for NM.

Shawn Chafins

It's funny but who are the "most people?" I have not run into one person in this state that believes or wants to pay more taxes to find these programs for what you mentioned. I am a firm believer of Equal Rights is for everyone.

Matt Matadoro

Fail. Try again. Tax policy and Equal Rights....yes? Go on.

Emily Koyama

Yeah, a century of Dems almost completely running the show in NM, the State at the bottom of nearly every good list, and the top of every bad list, and you people still feel deserving of the votes....makes one wonder about the intelligence of the average straight ticket Dem voter in NM.

Matt Matadoro

Funny, same nonsense they said about Trump and look at the mess and chaos he's brought our nation. The only one totally happy with Trump is Putin.

Robert Bartlett

Democrats are just starting to realize that they can't run on the issues and policies that Americans care about. So they hide in the basement and rely on the media to do the dirty work of lying and smearing Republicans and their policies.

Matt Matadoro

Nah, it's the 1,000 plus Americans dying DAILY from CV-19. Get a clue.

Richard Reinders

The blame for covid numbers including death is the fault of the Americans the most traveled people in the world carrying the virus 2,211,000,000 trips per year , and for the deaths we have 53,000,000 over 65 population this is why we are so high in deaths , but lets leave facts out because it doesn't fit the narrative.

Shawn Chafins

When you your full trust in positions to tell you how you are supposed to walk, talk stay indoors and let your immune system go down - who's really to blame?

Peter Romero

Luján just lost my vote.

Jim Klukkert

¡As if Ben Ray ever had your vote Peter Romero!

Nice try, no points.

Robert Bartlett

Ankle biting is not commentary.

Jim Klukkert

Says Bobby Bartlett, the one liner loon.

Diane Denish

he never had it any way...don't try to kid anyone. Ever think about how someone might "win" your vote. Try that and it will explain why your comment is silly.

Shawn Chafins

Wow! Now I see how our representatives have been really supporting New Mexicans. If he can't get in front of people and debate so that we can see who the best person for our interest is; then stay on the porch and let the big dogs take care of us New Mexicans. I'm changing my vote.

Diane Denish

Ben Ray has never been reluctant to "get in front of people".. Where have you been...and he has agreed to two meaningful debates....KOAT (Not Wrongchetti's station) and a more indepth on on PBS. Tune in ...quite sure he never had your vote to begin with.

Tim Herrera

He was on KRQE, get your facts straight.

Shawn Chafins

Sounds like the same game that is being played in Washington with the debates. Are you indicating a win or fofit?

Cynthia Paxton

He has not agreed to a debate BEFORE ballots begin to be cast because he is afraid he will make a mistake. He will only debate after the ballots have started being mailed to make sure he doesn’t cost himself too many votes. It’s dishonest to represent otherwise.

Richard Reinders

Lujan is arrogant to think he has this in the bag, he has always rode on the shirt tails of his fathers reputation, now that he is Pelosis puppet New Mexico needs someone that will actually represent them. These positions were not meant to be life time appointments, but to serve once so that a new and fresh perspective and cross section went every couple years. The public has been screaming for term limits voting Lujan out is a start, he has been ineffective for New Mexico and its time he went home

Carlos Montoya

Amén

Diane Denish

The "public" is not screaming for term limits...but nice try. He's been plenty effective but since you are an anti-Pelosi puppet yourself, that would be hard for you to see.

Richard Reinders

Pelosi lost any respect with do as I say not as I do hair salon incident and her non stop Russian conspiracy, I am a Democrat that expects something out of a candidate beside their political affiliation, I vote person not party.

Matt Matadoro

Said no one ever. Listen to help you with your angst, you might want to pull your hair out and buy one of those mouth guards because you are going to be grinding your teeth for a long time to come. The Blue Wave is a coming, Democrat Tsunami indeed!

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