Gary Johnson today finally made the official announcement that he is running for the U.S. Senate in New Mexico as a Libertarian. Now the two-time former governor of the state and two-time former Libertarian Party candidate for president has nine weeks to take on overwhelming front-runner Sen. Martin Heinrich (D) and novice Republican nominee Mick Rich.
In a phone interview yesterday, Johnson acknowledged that he is a "long shot" to win a three-way race in a heavily Democratic state. He said Rich seemed determined to stay in the race when the two men talked, but Johnson saw some cause for optimism in Heinrich's soft numbers and the swiftness with which the incumbent lashed out at the Libertarian when the news broke. "I don't know if Champagne shouldn't be popped right now," Johnson said.
While the idea of running for the Senate "came as a complete surprise" to Johnson just five weeks ago, after years of steadfastly ruling out another political run of any kind, the candidate says he's relishing the opportunity to talk about the national debt ("I'd be the number-one deficit hawk"), free trade, anti-interventionism, and President Donald Trump's immigration policies.
And for the charges already cropping up that he could play "spoiler" to the Democrats' dream of retaking control of the Senate, Johnson says bring it on, dreaming of what a Libertarian swing vote could mean. "Potentially," he said, "I could be the U.S. senator from New Mexico who actually has a say in the direction this country ends up taking."
The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:
Reason: Let's talk through how this happened. If I'm not mistaken, five months ago you told…Nick Gillespie that absolutely not would you ever get involved in politics again: "No, I'm done, I'm done with elected political office." If we can't trust your word about such important matters, how can we trust you to cut taxes once in office? What happened?
Gary Johnson: Well, so, I would just suggest that your timeline is a little off, that as recently as five weeks [ago], I would have said that…. So this came as a complete surprise—me, in Las Vegas, complete surprise. And everything I'm about to tell you is, was, [former L.P. Senate nominee] Aubrey Dunn's idea.
So there is no question in New Mexico that Martin Heinrich was going to win this race. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. But what was surprising was that [Dunn] had [done] some polling and discovered that Martin Heinrich's numbers are really weak; there aren't that many people that are committed to voting for him. And if Aubrey Dunn would have been elected to the U.S. Senate—which wasn't going to happen, but if he would have been—arguably he would have been maybe the most powerful, or certainly among the most powerful, senators in the U.S. Senate, because he would have been the swing vote, and he would have been an independent Libertarian.
So that's the lure here. This isn't about bellying up to the trough; this is conceivably about being the swing vote in the Senate and deciding what's good and what's bad. And I have to tell you, this being laid on my plate in Las Vegas, anyone with this laid on their plate would seriously have to consider the offer, which in this case was, "Hey, I'm going to drop out, and the Libertarian Party of New Mexico can name you as my replacement." So a couple of weeks ago, he announced that he was dropping out, and that he was imploring me to enter the race, and that's what's happened.
It's not so much about [Heinrich]; it's about what is at stake, and in this case, [that's] balancing the federal budget. Nobody's talking about the deficit! Yeah, lower taxes are a good thing, reducing the size and scope of government…gee, it doesn't necessarily seem like he's doing that, and by that I mean Trump, and the endless wars, and free trade. I'm not intending to be a wallflower if I actually get this opportunity to go to Washington. I could be, you know, a topic of [George] Stephanopoulos's talk crew every Sunday morning: "Where's Johnson on this stuff?"
Reason: So, you had said in your public comments up until now that you're taking it seriously, but you only want to get in if you can win. Can you really win a three-way race in a very strongly Democratic state?
Gary Johnson: Deep question. I'm the underdog, no ifs, ands, or buts. I'm the underdog. We'll see how much money we raise, and by "money we raise," you know, you don't have to outraise your opponent, you've got to have a certain parity, and we think that's going to happen. And if that happens, it'll be interesting.
And three-way race, yeah, it becomes more difficult in a three-way race. You hit that on the head also. And right now, Mick Rich, I think, is really upset. I mean, he's pissed off. So at the moment, he's going to…redouble his efforts; he's going to win. That's according to Mick Rich.
Reason: Have you reached out to him? I mean, I can't help but notice, he's sort of in the same career profile as yours, right? Like he's—
Gary Johnson: Yeah, but it kind of ends there. I mean, he took it off his website, [but] on his website, he said his number-one priority was [keeping] illegal drugs from crossing the border. And I've got to tell you, that's a disconnect. That's just a non-issue. Are there drugs coming across the border? I'm sure there are. To the extent that it should be his number-one priority?…
I did have a conversation with him, and the one takeaway I wanted from the conversation was I didn't want to make him mad; I just didn't want to make him mad. And I accomplished that. During that conversation, he really, genuinely, expressed to me that he was going to win…
Reason: Last time you and I were in close contact, which is sort of the end of 2016, the last two months there were not a happy time for you on the campaign trail. You were eagerly looking forward to not reading about Gary Johnson, to not looking at Twitter, to getting up on a bike at 10,000 feet above sea level, doing God knows what kind of terrible athletic things. Are you enthusiastic about running? Are you in it to win it, not just as a concept, but are you a happy warrior in there, and motivated to get out on the trail, given how much it wasn't always fun last time?
Gary Johnson: Well, you've hit on the other aspect of this, which is, "Oh my gosh, this is going to be a nine-week race." I can do anything for nine weeks!
That was another criticism that I had about [a potential] Senate race: Number one, going up to the trough, number two…you're looking at a year and a half of your life to campaign for that office. I think this will be terribly exciting; this came as a complete surprise, but it's a nine-week campaign. Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh.
So, yeah, I think your assessment about what happened in the presidential race is accurate. But…for me, that was the end of like an eight-year, 10-year endeavor, going back a long way.
Reason: So if you were to win this, at a time when currently the split in the Senate is 51/49 Republicans, and the country is feeling pretty anti-Republican, though the Senate math is pretty dicey for Democrats, you could conceivably be the difference between a Republican-controlled or Democratic-controlled Senate. You would be…
Gary Johnson: Exactly!
Reason: …in other words, the most hated man in all of the United States, politically.
Gary Johnson: Or, maybe not, though, depending on what came out of that most hated man's mouth.
Reason: Talk us through the prospects of being that person, both in terms of the opportunity to be hated, and the opportunity, as you see it, to do something different.
Gary Johnson: Well, talking about these issues, being a skeptic when it comes to our military interventions, genuine free trade being a solution, the size and scope [of government]. Nobody's talking about the deficit; I'd be the number-one deficit hawk. I'd be in there fighting to reduce spending in meaningful ways, and that would mean reform of Medicaid and Medicare….
So I don't know, am I going to be the most hated guy, or am I going to be the future of politics if I'm elected?
Reason: Talk about that future a little bit. This is obviously a chance for the Libertarian Party to have a shot at a Senate seat, which it has never really come close to. Talk about how this fits in with the growth of the success of the Libertarian Party, and how that motivates what you are doing right now.
Gary Johnson: Well, it's an unparalleled opportunity for Libertarians. It's an unparalleled opportunity for people that are independent, registered independent—which, of course, is the largest political affiliation in the country today. But really, if you can just drill into that a little bit, people I think discover that, "Oh my gosh, I'm independent, but I'm probably leaning Libertarian more than anything else."
And I have used broad brush strokes to declare…what a Libertarian is. Which—I've gotten in big trouble with the Libertarians beccause "it's not about that at all," but I'm going to say it here too—is, "Look, I'm running as a Libertarian; this is the opportunity that has presented itself. But I'm really an independent. We're all independent when it comes to philosophy. Hands down, I'm closer to being a Libertarian than any of the other two parties, but I don't toe a line either. I'm an independent. We're all independents. We really are.…
Reason: The bad September 2016 that you had, part of that, as we have discussed previously, was that was the month that Democrats freaked out about you. Tom Steyer threw a bunch of money into the campaign. Suddenly there was a barrage of very similar-sounding headlines about what a disaster you would be for the environment and suchlike. I'll just throw a couple of headlines out that I just found five minutes ago or so. One is "Gary Johnson, Professional Spoiler, Jumps Into New Mexico Senate Race"; that's New York magazine. And Esquire says, "Stoplight Skeptic Gary Johnson Just Decided That the Senate Is in Need of a Libertarian Loon." You're going to see a lot of that. You ready for that? You looking forward to that?
Gary Johnson: Yeah, well they're dealing with New Mexico now. So New Mexico did elect me two times as governor, and I sowed a lot of seeds. So we'll see how it turns out. I mean, hey, I don't want to in any way diminish the long-shot aspect of this, but I don't know if that's wise. I don't know if Champagne shouldn't be popped right now, based on what's happening.
Reason: Some Libertarian Party activists who are, for the most part, pretty excited about this news, have nevertheless back-channeled to me concern that, "Hey, this sounds like Ron Nielson's idea. This doesn't sound like Gary Johnson's idea." And there have been concerns over the years that too much of the strategy from your camp comes from him and not you. What do you say to those people about those specific concerns?
Gary Johnson: Well, in this case, this was Aubrey Dunn's idea; this was really Aubrey Dunn's idea.
Ron and I have had a great relationship; Ron and I now are on a 25-year relationship. I leave the campaign to Ron, but the messaging is me; he leaves that to me….I can't say enough about Ron Nielson, and I think the guy's a genius. I come back to the fact that Hillary and Trump each had [$1.8 billion], and we had $12 million. And, you know, I think Ron spent two solid weeks without a minute of sleep, and that was Ron. I mean, that's what we all did. But Ron's cooking this up and I'm the puppet? I don't know. No, I don't think so.
Reason: So going forward now, you've got a nine-week sprint ahead of you. What are some milestones? What are some big things that need to happen? What is the rabbit that you want to pull out of your hat?
Gary Johnson: Well, I think that money is the key….Don't have to have more money; less is okay, but as long as it's enough to actually launch into this, that's really the key. And we'll see how that goes….
Reason: And just straight up to the "spoiler" charge, which you're going to hear nonstop from Democrats…How do you respond specifically to that spoiler charge now?
Gary Johnson: Well, I'm going to embrace whatever it is that they've got to call me; I'm just going to embrace it and go from there. You can call me anything you want, but here's what's at stake, and you want to call that a spoiler? I don't know. I call that having a voice. I call that as a way to actually express my frustration over the whole system. That's a vote for me….
Professional spoiler? Like I said, I'll embrace it, whatever you want to call me. But potentially, I could be the U.S. Senator from New Mexico who actually has a say in the direction this country ends up taking.