LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate and former two-term Republican governor Gary Johnson is killing time outside a Starbucks in Los Alamos between campaign events. Technically he shouldn’t be here at all—or, at least not running for office. On election night in 2016, Johnson told NM Political Report he was done with politics after his second presidential run. Asked about that night, Johnson answers the question he knows is coming next.
“I can’t be believed,” Johnson interrupted sarcastically. “I lost my credibility on what you’re going to ask.”
Almost two decades after he left the governor’s office in Santa Fe and two years since his last presidential run, Johnson now wants to be a U.S. Senator. And though he ultimately needs to beat the incumbent, Democrat Martin Heinrich, he’s also up against Albuquerque construction contractor Mick Rich, a candidate from Johnson’s former political party. According to a recent poll conducted for the Albuquerque Journal, Heinrich maintains a large lead over both of his opponents. A lead that leaves Rich and Johnson in a race-within-a-race for the the remaining conservative and independent votes.
The two-term governor makes a point to not focus on Heinrich personally in interviews—just his politics. The same goes for his Republican opponent.
“I came to the epiphany the other day, you know, he ran an uncontested primary,” Johnson said of Rich. “He is completely un-battlefield tested.”
But on a personal level?
“I’m sure he’s a nice guy and if I were him, I’d be pissed,” Johnson said, speculating how Rich feels about Johnson getting in the race.
In recent years, Johnson’s candor has become a thing of wonder for journalists when it comes to colorful quotes.
The day before NM Political Report spoke with him, for example, Johnson addressed a group of almost two dozen pueblo leaders at a meeting south of Albuquerque.
“If I’m given enough time to speak here this morning, I will piss off everybody in this room,” Johnson told the All Pueblo Council of Governors.
Quoted in a recent Economist story, Johnson complained about bad breath from voters on the campaign trail.
During his 2016 campaign for president, Johnson was on record, at least twice, saying “Trump’s a pussy.”
Johnson said after he had trouble answering a question about Syria in 2016, news reporters were on the hunt for salacious quotes.
“When Aleppo happened in the ‘16 run, every interview I had, no matter who I had an interview with, it was like, ‘I gotcha,’” Johnson said. “Every interviewer was casting a line.”
But spend more than a soundbite-amount of time with him, and Johnson will also delve into how his limited government beliefs would guide him as a U.S. Senator to tackle the national debt and cut government spending, including for some assistance programs.
“Look, whatever you subsidize, you get more of, whatever you tax you get less of,” Johnson said. “We subsidize not working. What’s going to happen when you subsidize not working? There’s a lot of people that aren’t going to work.”
Medicare for all, he said, is “the exact opposite direction” the country should be headed.
“I guess we’re just going to hasten the collapse,” Johnson said.
Johnson does however support expanding airspace for Holloman Air Force Base into the Gila Wilderness, which he said would create thousands of jobs.
“Having ridden [on a bicycle] through the Gila Wilderness the last couple of years, if a low-level F-16 flight went overhead, personally? Yeah!”
Walk of shame
During his two terms as governor, Johnson got a public relations lesson from a high-profile Texas governor.
“George W. Bush gave me some advice: Never get introduced at an event where you’re not the attraction. Don’t go to an athletic event and get introduced because people are going to boo and it makes it sounds like the whole place is booing,” Johnson said. “I know that for a fact because when a politician is introduced and I hear that, I’m yelling ‘Boo!’”
Recalling his second gubernatorial term, Johnson said he swore off parades because of hecklers.
“The State Fair parade in Albuquerque, I called that the walk of shame,” Johnson said. “Within every minute somebody would call you out for being a shitbag.”
Related: On the (hiking) trail with Heinrich
Then, Johnson said, things changed when he came out in favor of legalizing cannabis. In 2002, he said, he went back to the same parade and while he didn’t necessarily hear cheers, there was also no jeers.
Johnson acknowledges his near-celebrity status is thanks to cannabis.
“When somebody comes up to me on the street and says, ‘I absolutely love you,’ you know what that means? That’s a pot smoker,” Johnson said.
His investment in two different cannabis producers raises questions about how altruistic his motives are, but he said, the advocacy came first.
Heinich supports legalization. And Johnson’s advocacy for legalizing recreational cannabis is diametrically opposed to the Republican candidate’s view.
“If you don’t have good paying jobs, crime’s out of control and you don’t give a damn about education, then just zone out with booze or drugs,” Rich told NM Political Report.
Johnson counters that idea in typical fashion: with a healthy dose of hyperbole.
“I have always said that the issue of legalizing marijuana is a litmus test as to whether or not you have a brain or not,” Johnson said.
A recent poll on the issue showed that 60 percent of likely New Mexico voters support legalization, but it is unclear which candidate those voters support.
Splitting the vote
When Johnson first entered the race for U.S. Senate and a poll showed him ahead of Rich, many Johnson supporters called for the Republican to drop out and unify efforts to beat Heinrich. When the Albuquerque Journal poll showed Rich in second place, with a 10 point lead over Johnson, the Republican Party of New Mexico, along with Rich’s campaign called for Johnson to drop out.
“Let him spew his radical beliefs elsewhere, so the hard-working families of this state can gain a voice in the U.S. Senate,” a Rich fundraising email read.
But Rich told NM Political Report he is confident he can win the race with or without competition from Johnson, because they are each going after different voters.
“Gary’s out there, he’s saying ‘I’m a Libertarian, I’m an independent.’ He’s taking the independents and he’s going to take the progressive Democrats with him, those millenials that are all in for legalized marijuana, all good with open borders, all good with abortion up to the point of delivery, all of that,” Rich said.
Rich added that he thinks he can easily pick up the more socially conservative “Republicans who are the Trump supporters.”
The candidate different doesn’t seem worried about losing support from fellow candidates or politicians already serving in the Senate though. In fact, he gained the endorsement of Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who espouses financially libertarian ideals, and Johnson expects there to be more. But he coyly wouldn’t comment on who else might endorse him.
“I guess you’ll just have to stay tuned on that one,” Johnson said.
Johnson is confident he can win this November and provide a swing vote in the Senate, not beholden to any one caucus. But if he doesn’t win, would he consider running for another office?
“I can’t imagine that these circumstances will ever exist again,” Johnson said.
Then again, he may have lost his credibility on that question.