Johnson embraces underdog label

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gary Johnson knows he’s a heavy underdog in the race for one of New Mexico’s two U.S. Senate seats, as no Libertarian has ever been elected to Congress.

In fact, the former New Mexico governor told the Journal the race is a “slam dunk” as things currently sit for Democratic incumbent Martin Heinrich.

But Johnson says he has a puncher’s chance to win after deciding to enter the race with less than three months before Election Day – as a replacement for fellow Libertarian and state Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn.

“I realize it’s an uphill battle,” Johnson told the Journal in an interview. “But I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think I had a chance. … I’ll label myself as an underdog, but I was governor of New Mexico for eight years, and I think I sowed some really good seeds.”

The man who earned the nickname “Governor No” after vetoing nearly 750 bills while in the office met with local media outlets Thursday to discuss his campaign. The necessary paperwork was filed late Monday with the Secretary of State’s Office for Johnson to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Johnson, a Taos resident, was a Republican when he served as governor from 1995 through 2002. He later switched his party affiliation to Libertarian and ran for president in 2012 and 2016.

His return to New Mexico politics could not only shake up the Senate race – the other candidates are Heinrich and Republican Mick Rich – but might also give a boost to other Libertarian candidates on the ballot.

Libertarians have major-party status for this year’s state election cycle, largely because Johnson received 9.3 percent of the New Mexico votes in the 2016 general election.

Johnson said he was approached by Dunn earlier this summer about possibly replacing him on the general election ballot, and eventually warmed to the idea despite vowing after his 2016 presidential run that he was done with political campaigns.

“I think anyone presented with the possibility of entering into this race and potentially winning … I think anyone would have seriously considered doing it,” he told the Journal.

Johnson also pledged he would not run a negative campaign against his two opponents, but indicated he intends to barnstorm statewide and try to raise enough money to run a competitive campaign.

If elected to the U.S. Senate, he said, he would be influential as a swing vote and “independent voice” who would not be afraid to rile Democrats and Republicans alike.

“That would be the hope … that I would make both sides angry,” he said.

Johnson said his policy positions would include reducing the size and scope of the federal government, while also making changes to curb the growth of Medicaid and other safety net programs.

“When you subsidize not working, there’s a real incentive to not work,” Johnson said.

But he also blasted GOP-backed immigration policies, saying, “I’m going to be that voice that says, ‘You all are crazy when it comes to immigration.’ ”

Hispanic support

University of New Mexico political science professor Gabriel Sanchez said Johnson’s entrance into the Senate race should make the race more compelling.

He said Johnson is unlikely to win the contest, but pointed out that Johnson cut into Democrat Hillary Clinton’s support in the 2016 presidential race by attracting strong support among Hispanic voters.

“I do not anticipate that he will do as well among off-year voters as he did in the presidential race due to some of his unpopular policy views,” said Sanchez, who cited internal Heinrich campaign polls showing the incumbent with a strong lead in the three-way race. “However, Johnson, if well-funded, can definitely make things a lot tighter than if he were not in the race.”

Both of Johnson’s opponents in the three-way Senate race have criticized Johnson since the former governor confirmed his candidacy, with Heinrich’s campaign blasting his policy stances on Social Security and other federal programs and Rich describing both of his opponents as “career politicians.”

In a Thursday statement, state Democratic Party Chairwoman Marg Elliston said Johnson would bring “destructive ideas” to Capitol Hill, specifically citing some of his past actions as governor to veto proposed minimum wage increases and push voucher proposals to improve public schools.

‘Common sense’

A businessman before he got into politics, Johnson created waves – and opposition from some other Republicans – as governor in 1999 when he publicly advocated for the legalization of drugs, including marijuana.

He also had frequent run-ins with the Democratic-controlled Legislature, as lawmakers took him to court after he launched a work program for welfare recipients without legislative approval. When he didn’t scrap the program, he became the first governor to be found in contempt of court by the New Mexico Supreme Court.

Johnson is also an avid athlete who has completed marathons and climbed Mount Everest.

Earlier this summer, he completed a 2,700-mile mountain bike race from Canada to the Mexican border in 28 days – or seven days faster than his time in last year’s race. He also did a separate race – the “Breck Epic” – in Colorado this month.

Now back in the political spotlight, Johnson said he hasn’t changed all that much.

“The common sense hasn’t left at all,” Johnson said. “The fact that I’m 23 years older than when I took office as governor, I’d like to think that life experience has led to a better person – not a lesser person.”

He also said many voters are fed up with the current state of national politics, and a two-party system that makes it difficult for candidates that are not Democrats or Republicans to break through.

“We’ll see how frustrated New Mexicans are,” Johnson told the Journal. “If they want somebody that can filibuster and make it stick, I’m the guy.”

“If they want a voice that’s going to be out there saying the things that need to be said, I’m going to be that voice,” he added.