Former Gov. Gary Johnson’s formal announcement Tuesday of his Libertarian bid for the U.S. Senate heightened speculation in New Mexico political circles about whether he will most hurt Democratic incumbent Sen. Martin Heinrich or Republican newcomer Mick Rich.
Rich said he’s convinced that the socially liberal Johnson will take more votes from Heinrich. Heinrich’s camp, however, ripped into more conservative stances by Johnson, who twice ran successfully for governor as a Republican.
“What a crazy, wacky world we live in,” Rich said in a phone interview Tuesday. Johnson is “more in sync with [Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders] than he is with Republicans,” Rich said.
Johnson in the past has admitted that some of his views do jibe with those of the independent Sanders, who sought the Democratic nomination for president in 2016 as a standard-bearer for progressives. Johnson in May 2016 told The New Mexican that when he took an online quiz designed to tell you which presidential candidate you most agreed with, “Besides myself, the candidate I agreed with the most was Bernie Sanders. I agreed with Bernie on 73 percent of the issues.”
However, he added, “When we come to that ‘T’ in the road, economic policy, that’s when he heads in one direction and I go in the other.”
On Tuesday, Johnson tweeted a message that said “New Mexico deserves a strong, independent voice in the U.S. Senate.” The tweet included a link to a 90-second biographical video produced by Elect Liberty, a pro-Johnson political action committee in Utah.
“He’s fiscally conservative and socially cool,” the video’s narrator says.
Meanwhile, a memo about Johnson from Heinrich’s campaign communications director said “the last time he held elected office in New Mexico he wanted to privatize our educational system and slash safety net programs. Gary wants to cut funding for our military, which would hurt New Mexico’s labs and bases.”
The memo also said Johnson “wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act and gut Medicare and Medicaid by almost half,” and wants to raise the Social Security retirement age and doesn’t support the minimum wage.
Attempts to reach Johnson for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.
State Democratic Party chairwoman Marg Elliston also was quick to react to Johnson’s candidacy, issuing a statement that said, “It’s telling of his character that in his first move to run for Senate, Gary Johnson coordinated his campaign launch with a Utah-based Super PAC run by his former campaign manager. Not only is he circumventing federal election law so wealthy donors can tip the scales in this Senate race, no New Mexico voter actually voted for him to be on the ballot.”
The Elect Liberty PAC is run by Johnson’s political consultant, Ron Nielson of Salt Lake City. Nielson said Tuesday that later in the campaign he might leave Elect Liberty and work directly for the Senate campaign of Johnson, who twice has run for president as the Libertarian Party’s nominee.
Though many say Johnson’s candidacy will make the Senate race more exciting, one national expert said the actual impact on the election results is likely to be minimal.
The nonpartisan newsletter Inside Elections has rated New Mexico as solidly Democratic in the Senate race. Editor Nathan Gonzales said in a recent interview that unless Rich drops out, he sees no reason to change that assessment.
John Blair, chief of staff for the New Mexico Secretary of State, said his office received paperwork from the Libertarian Party of New Mexico on behalf of Johnson on Monday night.
Johnson replaces state Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn on the ballot. Dunn — like Johnson, a former registered Republican — dropped out of the Senate race late last month. The state Libertarian Party — now officially a major party in New Mexico because of Johnson’s 9 percent showing here in the 2016 presidential race — offered the ballot spot to Johnson earlier this month.
Dunn told The New Mexican when he dropped out that he and Johnson had discussed a plan for Dunn to get out and Johnson to get in.
Johnson served two four-year terms as governor, from 1995 through 2002. He switched to the Libertarian Party in late 2011 and was that party’s presidential nominee in 2012 and 2016.