Yesterday, Allahpundit looked at some potentially bad news for the GOP on the Senate front, with candidates in Tennessee and Arizona underperforming. There’s some other not-so-great news, albeit less surprising, coming out of New Mexico this week as well, but it comes with a twist. Incumbent Democratic Senator Martin Heidrich was always considered a favorite going into this race, but the situation became a bit more complicated when former Governor Gary Johnson entered on the Libertarian ticket. Last month we learned that Johnson was having a surprising impact on the race and was actually polling in second place, even running ahead of Republican challenger Mick Rich.
This had some people – particularly the Libertarians – quite excited and there was talk of a possible upset in the making. But now, as Reason reports, Johnson has sunk back down toward numbers more typical of a third-party run. Sadly, that hasn’t really improved Mick Rich’s prospects all that much.
In a significant mood-dampener for the Libertarian Party, two-time Libertarian presidential nominee and two-term Republican governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson finished a distant third place in an Albuquerque Journal poll that came out this weekend. The September 7–13 survey of 966 likely voters, carried out by Research & Polling Inc. (which FiveThirtyEight gives a pollster rating of “A”), found Democratic incumbent Sen. Martin Heidrich with 47 percent support, compared to 26 percent for novice GOP candidate Mick Rich and just 16 percent for Libertarian standard-bearer Johnson.
The news comes as a rude reversal of an Emerson College poll last month, which had Johnson in second place with 21 percent, not only far ahead of Rich’s 11 percent (and closer to Heinrich’s 39) but receiving more support than the GOP nominee from Republican voters. In the newer poll, Rich trounces Johnson among Republicans, 62 percent to 18 percent.
No matter how you try to spin those numbers there’s really nothing much good in there for anyone but the incumbent Democrat. When you’re leading by more than twenty, who comes in second really isn’t of much interest to anyone but political trivia buffs. And if this poll was looked at absent any other context, Gary Johnson isn’t even acting as a spoiler. His total combined with Mick Rich’s share still adds up to a five-point lead for Heidrich.
But as Reason points out, this latest poll may represent a bit more of an outlier than a trend. If you take the average of all the recent polls, the numbers shake out to Heidrich 44, Rich 26 and Johnson 20. Looked at through this lens, the Republican and the Libertarian combined are pulling more of the vote than the incumbent Democrat, though it would still be within the margin of error. So the question to be asked here is if Heidrich’s ceiling is actually around 44 or if he’s just suffering the consequences of a crowded field.
I certainly don’t expect Johnson to pull out of the race no matter how far down he sinks, but since we’re dealing with hypotheticals here anyway, how would that impact the race? Even though Johnson was a Republican when he served as governor, it’s unrealistic to think that all of his supporters would go to Mick Rich. Libertarians tend to break toward the GOP on issues of smaller government, lower taxes and more freedom, but they definitely run with the Democrats on most social issues. Still, if Rich could grab a significant majority of Johnson’s voters this could be more of a horse race than it now appears.
So where was I going with all of this? New Mexico is considered to be at least a relatively safe state for Democrats in Senate races these days, but perhaps not as safe as we were led to believe. If Heidrich’s ceiling is actually below fifty, perhaps a different candidate and an effort to appease Johnson and keep him on the sidelines could have flipped this seat. Sadly, we’ll never know in terms of 2018, but it’s something for GOP strategists to keep in mind for 2020. Tom Udall will be 72 years old by then and may be looking at retirement. But even if he runs again, these numbers have me wondering if he won’t have as easy of a task ahead of him as he did in his 55-44 romp in 2014.