Bitter US Senate contest dwells on crime, coronavirus

Candidates for an open U.S. Senate seat in New Mexico are parrying a barrage of political attack ads as the first televised debate of the campaign takes place

SANTA FE, N.M. — Candidates in an open U.S. Senate race outlined clashing visions for the future of health care, policing strategies and civil rights struggles in the first public debate of the campaign, aired live on local network television Monday.

Retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Udall has endorsed as his successor allied six-term U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, while Republican former television meteorologist Mark Ronchetti is promising to chart a more conservative political course and endorsed federal intervention to bolster law enforcement.

Candidates picked their own locations for the debate, amid the coronavirus outbreak at the White House and a recent positive test among staff at the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe. Ronchetti participated from the television studio, Luján chose his campaign office in Albuquerque and Libertarian Bob Walsh spoke from his home in Santa Fe.

“What’s happening in Washington isn’t working for New Mexico,” said Ronchetti. “And if we keep sending the same people back, they’re going to get the same results.”

Luján touted his support in Congress for the Affordable Care Act that has expanded health insurance coverage in New Mexico and his track record in securing federal funding for defense installations and water infrastructure projects on the Navajo Nation.

“I was leading to protect people with preexisting conditions because a cancer diagnosis should not lead to bankruptcy or losing your home,” he said.

Confronted with his past praise of Trump’s pandemic response, Ronchetti said “knowing what we knew, that we moved ahead as well as we could.” He commended U.S. travel restrictions on China and early efforts to manufacture more ventilator breathing machines.

On efforts to craft a new pandemic relief package, Luján suggested another round of $1,200 direct payments to taxpayers is needed, along with an infusion of federal resources to public schools aimed at reopening classrooms safely.

Ronchetti said businesses should have liability protections in coronavirus-related lawsuits.

“They shouldn’t have to fear frivolous lawsuits,” he said.

Ronchetti repeatedly said a House economic relief bill would let violent criminals out of prison. Luján dismissed the statements as lies.

Amid questions about the future of civil rights guarantees and racial equality, Ronchetti said policing reforms on the use of force are being derailed by partisanship, citing languishing proposals from Black GOP Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. Bipartisan policing reforms are within reach, Luján said.

The Democratic House and Republican-led Senate are at a stalemate on reforms to police procedures and accountability, under a fresh focus since the May death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minnesota after a white officer held a knee against his neck.

A House-approved bill would ban choke holds and no-knock warrants in drug cases with new standards to pursue penalties for police misconduct. No-knock warrants are under criticism since the death of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, fatally shot in March by police who broke down her door.

Luján accused Republicans of standing in the way of legislation to end pay discrimination against women, and noted his support for legislation to defend LGBTQ rights.

“We need to bring that moral compass again and be leaders like we were before President Trump,” Luján said.

A moderator pressed the candidates on whether they support overturning Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision that established abortion rights nationwide.

Ronchetti said “it’s a very difficult question to answer only because you don’t know what the case will be.”

Luján said the Roe v. Wade decision is “the law of the land and should not be overturned.” He warned that consumer health care protections are at stake in the Supreme Court confirmation process for a successor to deceased liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Walsh said the Roe v. Wade decision is based on absolute right of privacy and is likely to be upheld in the future. He urged voters who seek fundamental changes to vote Libertarian.

“We are in danger of losing it here — the people have the right, the duty to replace the government or to alter it if it’s not meeting their needs,” he said.

Absentee balloting begins Tuesday across the state that has an all-Democratic delegation to Washington, D.C. New Mexico hasn’t backed a Republican for Senate since 2002, and Trump lost New Mexico in 2016 to Hillary Clinton by 8 percentage points.