Three vi­sions for Se­nate

John­son, Rich go on at­tack as they try to top­ple in­cum­bent Hein­rich in first de­bate of race

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Andrew Ox­ford aox­ford@sfnewmex­i­can.com

Let the free mar­ket loose.” For­mer Gov. Gary John­son, Lib­er­tar­ian New Mex­i­cans de­serve an econ­omy that works for all of us, not just a few.” Sen. Martin Hein­rich, Demo­crat [Hein­rich] has aban­doned New Mex­ico.” Mick Rich, Repub­li­can

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 three­way 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 as 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 a long list of ve­toes 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.

SCREEN­SHOTS FROM KOAT

SCREEN­SHOT FROM KOAT

U.S. Sen. Martin Hein­rich took hits from both sides in the first tele­vised de­bate of his re-elec­tion cam­paign, from Lib­er­tar­ian can­di­date Gary John­son, left, and Repub­li­can Mick Rich, right.

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