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Johnson: The candidate who’s something else

August 26, 2018

ALBUQUERQUE — The guy in the “Build the Wall” T-shirt left about 10 minutes into Gary Johnson’s speech.

But otherwise, the crowd was stoked. Or at least curious.

As the former New Mexico governor held his first rally as the Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate last week, some members of his administration from the 1990s felt like the old band was back together.

There were aides from the days when Johnson was a Republican. Then there were the Libertarians. There were the guys in Western wear who looked like they keep a lot of their money in gold bars, and guys who looked like they had skied a 100-day season and keep most of their money in cryptocurrency. There were advocates for election reform, drug reform and immigration reform. One woman even sang to the former governor during a question-and-answer period.

The event had all the zaniness befitting a third-party underdog.

But there was something else, too.

Johnson has electrified a boringly lopsided race that looked like a walk for Democratic incumbent Martin Heinrich. And Johnson is doing it by veering from the usual script — speaking to Libertarian-leaning voters who once fit inside the Republican Party but are not so sure about that in the age of President Donald Trump.

And as Democrats grapple with their own identity crisis and wring their hands over calls from the base to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Johnson questions aloud why the country has a Department of Homeland Security at all while arguing for more immigration and legalizing weed.

These disparate audiences are hard to pin down. And the big question is whether they are enough to elect Johnson.

Either way, Johnson’s voters could prove to be a bigger problem for both Republicans and Democrats than either party might want to admit.

Just look at the stage at Johnson’s kickoff rally.

Luis Tena, a University of New Mexico student and Dreamer whose mother brought him to the U.S. illegally when he was a young child, described the Libertarians’ pro-business message as more positive than what the other parties are offering.

Then there were veterans of Johnson’s administration.

“I’m a Republican. I believe in the value of what Republicans stand for,” said John Garcia, former tourism and economic development secretary.

But Garcia remains an unabashed Johnson supporter, describing his old boss as genuine — perhaps more Republican than many other Republicans when it comes to issues like government spending and the budget.

“He’s the same guy behind the doors when it’s locked and closed as he is in front of you guys,” he told the crowd.

And that is the point supporters come back to again and again.

At some point, it isn’t what Johnson is saying but that he is saying it in a time when candidates are loath to speak about anything that has not been thoroughly researched through focus groups.

Johnson has recast himself since leaving office in late 2002. He ran the state for two terms as “Governor No,” vetoing so many bills as to make Gov. Susana Martinez look like a piker.

Since then, Johnson has run for president twice as a Libertarian and sought to brand himself as a sort of hip alternative to a Republican — “fiscally conservative, socially cool,” as a campaign video put it. He proposes slashing the size and scope of government, giving a bigger role to the private sector in delivering public services and increasing immigration. On the stump, he is at once critical of Trump and Democrats in Congress.

All these years later, after two terms of Democrat Bill Richardson and another two terms of a Republican administration that has presided over a straggling economy, the 1990s may not look too bad to some New Mexicans.

With the Democrats and Republicans grappling with identity crises, Johnson steps onto the stage at a moment when plenty of voters seem open to something else, and he comes with the advantage of being well known in his home state.

“The Republican Party is clearly a mess. But so are the Democrats, to be honest. It’s not obvious because they’re all united against Trump, but let’s say you had a Democratic Congress. The differences in the party would be problematic,” said Lonna Atkeson, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. “People are looking for alternatives.”

Johnson got 9 percent of the vote in New Mexico when he ran for president in 2016. It was enough to win Libertarians major-party status and, in turn, a spot on the ballot this year. He performed particularly well in areas that have long been considered Republican but where many GOP voters were uneasy about Trump.

For example, Johnson won nearly 14 percent of the vote in Los Alamos County. He also won nearly 12 percent in Socorro and Cibola counties.

But he did not come close to winning a single county.

Still, Atkeson said she believes Johnson drew votes from both sides. After all, many prominent New Mexico Republicans — including Martinez — were publicly critical of Trump before the 2016 election. Meanwhile, some Democrats were dissatisfied with their party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton, after a fractious primary. Look no further than the fact she won just 48 percent of the vote in New Mexico as opposed to the outright majority Barack Obama claimed in 2012.

Running for a second term, Heinrich has plenty of ammunition. While critics may take issue with his policies, his support for certain candidates in Democratic primaries over others or even his “not from ’round here” status as a born-and-bred Nevadan, he rarely gets attacked on a personal level. While scandals consume some congressional races around the country, the race for New Mexico’s Senate seat has been amiable.

Polls have offered contrasting pictures of Johnson’s impact so far.

The one independent poll circulating since he entered the race comes from Emerson College and shows Johnson with support from 21 percent of registered voters surveyed, while 39 percent backed Heinrich, 11 percent backed Republican challenger Mick Rich and 30 percent said they were undecided.

The state Democratic Party responded a few days later, circulating a poll showing Heinrich with 48 percent support among likely voters, 33 percent supporting Rich and 17 percent backing Johnson, while only 2 percent were undecided.

Make of these numbers what you will. Johnson will be quick to note that he was elected and re-elected in New Mexico at a time when most voters were registered as Democrats. At a certain point, he is a pollster’s nightmare. If politics today is driven in large part by data, Johnson’s appeal is still about personality and retail campaigning.

So, exactly who is the Gary Johnson voter?

As one aide at Johnson’s rally joked: “I’m still trying to figure that out.”

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