Like it or not, Gary Johnson has been a trailblazer.
The former Republican governor of New Mexico ran for president twice as a Libertarian, the second time delivering the most votes ever—over 4 million, or about 3 percent of the popular vote—for his adopted party. His tallies didn’t really have a discernible impact on the 2016 presidential election, but he did gain a toehold for a third party on the national stage. He also earned major party standing for the Libertarian Party in New Mexico.
Now he’s trying to blaze a new trail, as the first Libertarian to be elected to the U.S. Senate. He is running to unseat Martin Heinrich this November.
I suppose it’s a long shot, given Heinrich’s entrenched Democratic support, but a recent poll suggests an upset isn’t impossible.
Earlier this year, Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn converted from Republican to Libertarian and announced a run for the Senate seat Heinrich now occupies. But then he dropped out of the race and, in early August, Johnson jumped in to replace him as the Libertarian Party nominee. In addition to Heinrich, there’s the Republican Party nominee, Mick Rich, who never really looked like a winner—though he could now be a spoiler.
The day after Johnson jumped into the race, Emerson College Polling did an e-poll of 500 registered voters (margin of error 4.6 percent) and found Johnson immediately running a strong second. The poll had Heinrich in the lead with 39 percent, Johnson with 21 percent and Rich with 11 percent.
The wild card in this reshuffled deck is the undecided vote. The poll found them at a whopping 30 percent of the state’s registered voters.
Could we actually see the rise of a third party in American politics? A lot of Americans have lost faith in both the Democrats and the Republicans and are looking for a third way. Libertarians are fiscally conservative and socially liberal, they believe in limited government and a noninterventionist military. According to Johnson, most Americans are actually libertarian, they just don’t know it.
Maybe that’s true in theory, but certainly not in practice. I think voters are far more likely to support one of the two major parties because, well, it’s not the other party.
To liberals, the Republican Party has been demonized, and to conservatives it’s those Devilish Democrats that must be kept out of office. In other words, my theory goes, most people vote for the party most capable of upsetting the party we hate.
So, if Democrats become convinced that a Senator Johnson would caucus with the Republicans (the way Bernie Sanders caucuses with the Democrats), they’ll stick with Heinrich, even if they do like some the libertarian values he stands for.
Still, Johnson sits in a unique position. A self-made millionaire businessman who bucked the party establishment in 1994 to be elected governor, his claim to fame quickly became his veto pen, setting records far and wide for his willingness to nix about half the legislation that came his way.
He reduced the size of state government and had the pleasure of riding the dotcom boom through most of his years as governor, so by the time he was term-limited out of office, he was known and respected as a bona fide small government, libertarian-type Republican. In 2012, he left the GOP altogether and ran twice as the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee in 2012 and 2016—and now he’s bringing his new party credentials back home.
This is Heinrich’s first time to seek re-election to the Senate; six years ago, he won his first term in office by beating Hector Balderas in his party primary and Heather Wilson in the general.
As for the elephant in every political room these days, both Heinrich and Johnson are outspoken critics of President Trump, each in their own way. In this Senate race, only Rich has registered any sort of support for this embattled president. He could make a hard right, sing praises to Trump, and get maybe 30 percent of New Mexico’s vote. Not bad in a three-man race.
Heinrich would have coasted his way into re-election had it not been for Johnson. Now this is a race worth watching, and not as some sort of “gauge” on the “national mood.” It’s now a race that will show New Mexico’s partisan, and its transpartisan, state of mind.
Libertarians and independents are trying to gain a foothold in New Mexico this election year, and while Johnson’s run appears to be a long shot at best, it’s still their best shot so far.
Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. He also owns and operates The Communicator in Santa Rosa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.