Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The two leading candidates for New Mexico’s open U.S. Senate seat exchanged familiar barbs – and a few new quips – during their third and final televised debate Wednesday.
In a pointed but civil hour-long debate sponsored by KOAT-TV and the Albuquerque Journal, Democrat Ben Ray Luján and Republican Mark Ronchetti sought to win over voters who have not yet cast their ballots.
Luján, who has spent 12 years representing the northern New Mexico-based 3rd Congressional District, stressed his New Mexico roots, saying, “I grew up here, I’m going to be laid to rest here – New Mexico is in my blood.”
Ronchetti, a former Albuquerque television meteorologist who moved to New Mexico two decades ago and said he fell in love with the state and its people, continued to hammer home his political outsider message, saying he would focus on achieving results and not scoring political points if elected Nov. 3.
“People who disagree politically have suddenly become enemies, and it doesn’t have to be this way,” he said.
Ronchetti accused Luján of prioritizing his political aspirations over effectiveness, saying the veteran representative has achieved little for New Mexicans during his time in Congress.
Luján countered that 29 bills he has worked on have been signed into law since he took office in 2009, including legislation dealing with opioid addiction.
“Time and time again, Mark continues to mislead voters on my record,” Luján said at one point during Wednesday’s debate.
Luján, 48, who has been ahead in the polls, would become New Mexico’s first Hispanic U.S. senator since Joseph Montoya in 1977.
For his part, Ronchetti, 47, would be the first Republican elected by state voters to the U.S. Senate since Pete Domenici was elected to his sixth and final six-year term in 2002.
The two candidates did agree on some issues during Wednesday’s debate, such as the need for human rights sanctions against China. But they spent most of the debate targeting each other’s positions.
Specifically, Luján accused Ronchetti of supporting a proposed repeal of the 2009 Affordable Care Act – either legislatively or through the U.S. Supreme Court.
In response, Ronchetti said he supports keeping the landmark health care law – also known as Obamacare – intact until a better plan can be crafted. He also said his family has used the Affordable Care Act, because one of his two daughters has a pre-existing health condition.
On the issue of immigration, Ronchetti, whose grandparents emigrated from Italy, said the United States’ current approach is a “broken system” and called for a lasting solution for immigration statuses of those brought into the country at a young age.
Luján also said he favors comprehensive immigration reform, saying Congress should build upon the work started by former President George W. Bush, a Republican.
Much of the debate focused on the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 220,000 Americans, among them 950 New Mexico residents.
Luján accused his opponent of holding large campaign events without wearing a face mask in defiance of state public health guidelines. He also said Ronchetti has defended President Donald Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“President Trump knew how bad this was at the end of January but kept it a secret,” Luján said. “If President Trump would have been a true leader, we would have been able to save more lives and more businesses.”
That prompted a barbed response from Ronchetti.
“If you wanted to run for president, you should have run for president, because the only thing you talk about is Trump and what he’s not doing,” Ronchetti said.
Ronchetti accused House Democrats of stalling on a new COVID-19 relief bill, saying Luján – as assistant U.S. House speaker – should have stood up to House leadership to try to help broker a deal.
“This is about not wanting to give a victory to your political opponent,” Ronchetti said.
Luján, in response, said that he has been working on trying to reach such a deal but that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has blocked such legislation from advancing.
Millions raised, spent
This year’s U.S. Senate race is open because Democratic incumbent Tom Udall announced last year that he would not seek reelection.
A Journal Poll published last month showed Luján with a lead over Ronchetti, as 49% of likely voters surveyed said they would vote for the six-term congressman and 40% said they would vote for his opponent.
Luján also has a fundraising edge over Ronchetti in this year’s race, though Ronchetti outraised Luján during a recent three-month reporting period.
Luján has reported raising more than $8 million for his campaign and spending nearly $6.1 million of that amount, while Ronchetti has raised roughly $3.2 million and spent about $1.7 million, according to Federal Election Commission filings last week.
A third candidate, Libertarian Bob Walsh of Santa Fe, did not participate in Wednesday’s debate, as KOAT determined he lacked the campaign funding and polling positions to be granted an invitation.