2018 Elections

Rich sees appetite for conservative

Subhed: Not shy about willingness to work with Trump, Republican embraces anti-elitist label

By Andrew Oxford
aoxford@sfnewmexican.com
Posted 10/28/18

Mick Rich is not fazed. If he is, he is not letting on. It has been more than a year since the Albuquerque contractor and political …

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2018 Elections

Rich sees appetite for conservative

Subhed: Not shy about willingness to work with Trump, Republican embraces anti-elitist label

Posted

 Mick Rich is not fazed. If he is, he is not letting on.

It has been more than a year since the Albuquerque contractor and political newcomer launched his campaign for U.S. Senate as a Republican, taking on Democratic incumbent Martin Heinrich. Rich had never run for office, but he cruised through the GOP primary election as the only candidate. Then former Gov. Gary Johnson got into the race as the Libertarian nominee, upstaging Rich and drawing national attention to the contest. Rich even faced pressure to drop out and let better-known Johnson challenge Heinrich one-on-one.

"I told him if you want to get in the race, get in the race," Rich said of a conversation with Johnson. "But I told him, 'I'm not getting out.' "

At one point, though, he called for Johnson to drop out. Rich, who does not have television ads or regular spots as a pundit on cable news, has spent more than a year shaking a lot of hands.

Strolling around the Santa Fe Plaza on Fiesta weekend, without the kind of entourage that usually trails Heinrich, he was easily missed in the crowd. He introduced himself to families. To anyone.

The three-way race with two other prominent New Mexico politicians makes a victory for Rich seem tough. But it prompted Rich to hone his message and highlight what sets him apart.

Rich's case to voters comes down to this: He's the conservative. Neither of the other candidates is opposed to abortion or legalizing marijuana.

No one else, Rich's campaign says, is going to work with President Donald Trump. That might seem like an odd point to highlight. Trump lost New Mexico in 2016, and his approval ratings in the state are in the 30s.

But Rich contends an appetite exists for a conservative voice, and that's how he is campaigning.

"This wasn't a fluke," Rich says, sizing up the race's strange turns. "This was my strategy."

'Send a hard hat to Washington'

Rich was born in the San Francisco Bay Area. His mother worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. His grandfather worked in the mining industry.

He was fascinated from a young age by big machinery and big projects, Rich says. He received a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Oregon State University, where he met his future wife, Marion. They moved to New Mexico in the early 1980s, and he started his company.

The company, Mick Rich Contractors, has become a family business. Rich has four children, one of whom now works for the company. The job has taken Rich all over the state. Bring up the point this is his first run for office, and he rattles off a list of projects he has worked on throughout the state -- as if, in a way, he is better acquainted with New Mexico than a more seasoned candidate traveling the campaign trail. He points to his work as a contractor when talking about jobs and the state's economic malaise, contending the state must be more open to businesses. His work also inspired Rich's campaign slogan: "Send a hard hat to Washington."

Rich launched his Senate campaign in early 2017 when other Republicans, such as Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, were still keeping their options open.

It seemed like only a matter of time before a politician with fundraising prowess and name recognition would come along. But that never happened. No other Republican got in the race. Just as surprising, though, was Rich's approach.

In the race for governor, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce has stayed focused on the issue of jobs and has downplayed his support for Trump. Pearce's playbook seems based on the idea that winning statewide in 2018 as a Republican demands appealing to plenty of independents and coming off as a moderate.

Rich has not been hiding his support for the president.

"I don't care much for the tweets," he says of Trump's digital bombast, insisting he would not be beholden to the president. He argues, though, that Trump's policies have been good for the state.

Take the tax bill Trump championed last year. Heinrich opposed it, arguing the measure was a giveaway to the wealthy. Rich supports it, saying the measure has been an economic boost.

On immigration, Rich supports allowing young people brought to the country as children without authorization to get permits to stay in the U.S. if they are working or attending school. But anyone seeking citizenship, he has said, must leave the country and then apply.

Rich opposes gun control measures, such as a ban on so-called assault weapons. He opposes legalizing marijuana for recreational use. And he opposes abortion. On health care, Rich has been skeptical of the Affordable Care Act. Though the law is credited with expanding coverage to more than a quarter-million New Mexicans, Rich argues it is not making health care affordable for many. He would support scrapping requirements that health insurers provide certain types of coverage as basic minimums for each plan and instead back the sale of insurance across state lines.

As a senator, Rich would be a sharp departure from Heinrich, whom Rich accuses of forsaking the state by moving his family to a suburb of Washington, D.C., and failing to do enough for the state's long-straggling economy.

This race was bound to be an almost quixotic battle for Rich. Analysts have rated it a safe one for Democrats.Heinrich had about $2.6 million on hand heading into the last month of the election, with Democratic leaders from around the country pouring money into his campaign along with labor unions, blue-chip corporations and an army of small-dollar donors mobilized online.

Rich, meanwhile, had about $158,000 on hand at the end of last month, most of it raised from in-state donors. The national Republican Party does not appear to be throwing much money into the race as it has with the race for the 2nd Congressional District in Southern New Mexico.

Rich's campaign holds out some hope that if Republicans can unite behind Rich, he can win. In a year when control of the House of Representatives is very much in question and the GOP's leadership in the Senate also could be imperiled, the stakes are high.

'Trump's on the ballot'

"This is not a midterm. This is Trump's first re-elect. That's playing out in these very tough Senate battles. And Mick Rich is a real populist," Steve Bannon said.

It was a rainy evening in Roswell, and the controversial former adviser to Trump was addressing a group of Republican voters in a quick appearance organized by his group, Citizens of the American Republic. Bannon has expressed a desire to support candidates who will be allies to the president.

So, touting Rich, Bannon drew a straight line in a half-hour speech from the unexpected victory he helped Trump score in 2016 through what he views as a sort of populist wave across the world that has led to a showdown between socialism and his brand of right-wing populism.

Nov. 6 represents a big test in all of this, Bannon said. Democrats blasted Bannon's appearance in the state Thursday and Rich's decision to appear alongside him, calling the president's former adviser a white supremacist. It is a label Bannon has rejected, but groups ranging from the Anti-Defamation League to the Southern Poverty Law Center have criticized him for the website he has run, Breitbart, and its role in the rise of the so-called alt-right as well as his influence on the president's approach to issues such as immigration.

Rich doubled down on appearing with Bannon, though, calling the president's former adviser anti-elitist and embracing that label himself.

Heinrich may be a bulwark against Trump. Johnson may be running as a sort of independent who would upend the partisan dynamic in Congress. But depending on who you ask, this has forced Rich -- or finally given him the freedom -- to push an unapologetically conservative message in this suddenly very crowded race.

While other candidates might run from Trump in this blue-ish state, Bannon's fire-and-brimstone, get-out-the-vote message was aimed squarely at those still rooting for the president here. The question will be whether that's enough to win.

"This is a national election," Bannon said. "Trump's on the ballot."

This story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of The Taos News.

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