SANTA FE – The three candidates for a rare open U.S. Senate seat in New Mexico sparred Monday evening about coronavirus relief legislation, health care access and how to effectively combat high crime rates in Albuquerque.
While policy issues took center stage, the hour-long debate televised by KOB-TV also highlighted the candidates’ divergent backgrounds.
Democrat Ben Ray Luján touted his record in the U.S. House and his family’s deep New Mexico roots, while Republican Mark Ronchetti repeatedly described himself as a political outsider who would work to cut through partisan bickering in Congress.
“What’s happening in Washington D.C. isn’t working for New Mexico,” Ronchetti said. “If we keep sending the same people back, they’re going to get the same results.”
Luján, who has held the state’s northern New Mexico-based 3rd Congressional District seat since 2009, pushed back on Ronchetti’s claims and said he had worked over the years to secure funding for the state’s national laboratories and to expand health care access.
“A cancer diagnosis should not lead to bankruptcy or losing your home,” he said.
Libertarian candidate Bob Walsh, who trailed far behind Luján and Ronchetti in a recent Journal Poll, also participated in Monday’s debate.
But he was a virtual bystander at times during the event, as Ronchetti and Luján largely directed their remarks at one another.
The three candidates appeared Monday from separate locations, with Ronchetti in the KOB-TV studios, Luján in his Albuquerque campaign office and Walsh in his Santa Fe home.
Ronchetti, a former KRQE-TV meteorologist who easily won a three-way GOP primary race in June, accused Luján of being more focused on climbing the ranks of Democratic leadership in the U.S. House than on the needs of New Mexicans.
“For too long, leaders in this state have not taken crime seriously,” he said in describing his support for federal law enforcement operations in Albuquerque.
In response, Luján said he has pushed for federal funds to address high crime rates, but expressed concern over federal troops’ tactics during recent civil unrest in Portland, Oregon.
At another point in the debate, Ronchetti did not answer directly when asked whether he backed President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 Americans, though he said the overall federal response to the virus has not been perfect.
For his part, Luján frequently sought to steer the discussion toward health care, accusing Trump and Senate Republican leaders of trying to rush the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett in order to repeal the federal Affordable Care Act, which was passed in 2009.
He also said Ronchetti had voiced support for privatizing Medicare – a claim Ronchetti denied – during the primary election cycle.
Luján held a nine-percentage point lead in the Journal Poll – conducted from Aug. 26 through Sept. 2 – and has frequently evoked his upbringing on his family’s farm in Nambé during this year’s campaign.
“We know the work that has to be done,” Luján said during his closing remarks. “I know this state. It’s who I am, it’s in my blood.”
There is no incumbent in this year’s U.S. Senate race, as Democrat Tom Udall announced in March 2019 he would not seek re-election to the seat he has held since 2009.
Ronchetti and Luján have launched dueling television ads in recent weeks, though Luján has a significant fundraising advantage over his opponents.
Specifically, Luján, who was unopposed in the Democratic primary, had raised more than $6.3 million for his Senate campaign as of June, and spent nearly $3.4 million. Ronchetti, for his part, had raised nearly $1.4 million and spent about $815,000.
New campaign spending reports will be filed in the coming week.