Two months after he emerged the winner of a three-way Republican primary, Mark Ronchetti is still adjusting to life as a major party’s nominee in the U.S. Senate race.
“It’s wild, it’s different. I’ve never been a candidate before and I’m not a politician, so this has been weird,” he said in an interview during an Aug. 6 visit to Roswell. He was accompanied by his wife Krysty and their two daughters: Ava, 13, and Ella, 11.
A 46-year-old former television meteorologist from Albuquerque, Ronchetti announced his bid in February for the seat now held by retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Udall. In February, Ronchetti, a political newcomer, entered a crowded Republican field.
Despite criticisms of his conservative credentials by his opponents, Ronchetti was able to win the June 2 Republican primary by a comfortable margin.
Some traditional aspects of the campaign experience though are absent this year due to the COVID-19 global pandemic and public health orders limiting public gatherings.
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In a campaign season heavy on social distancing, there are no rallies with throngs of sign-waving supporters, meetings of activists in tightly packed rooms or speaking engagements at meetings of community service organizations.
“It’s different, there’s no question about it. You just adjust because everybody is adjusting. It’s different for everyone,” Ronchetti said.
He added he is still traversing the state, often attending smaller, scaled-back events that still allow him to interact in-person with voters and get out his message.
“We are just kind of jumping around doing small meetings with people all around,” he said.
If he is to enter the halls of Congress and become the first Republican from New Mexico to win a U.S. Senate seat since 2002, Ronchetti will have to defeat Democratic candidate Ben Ray Lujan.
Lujan, a congressman representing the state’s Third Congressional District, is currently the assistant speaker of the House of Representatives. According to July campaign reports, Lujan has raised $6.3 million throughout the election cycle, compared to $1.3 million raised by Ronchetti.
Political analysts such as the Cook Political Report have also ranked the race as Strong Democrat. Republicans are also on the defensive in races across the country.
The Lujan campaign in a memo also described Ronchetti as “in lockstep with President Trump’s divisive agenda — an agenda New Mexicans have rejected.”
Ronchetti though has painted himself as someone willing to buck his party and ideology who can bring the independence of an outsider to the halls of Congress.
“And that is what the election is about. It’s about me versus Ben Ray Lujan. It’s about somebody who has never been in politics and someone who has always been in politics,” he said.
Rather than being part of two warring partisan factions, Ronchetti has concentrated on more state and local issues facing New Mexico, such as stubbornly high crime rates, a scarcity of economic opportunity and underperforming schools.
“What is really important to me in this race is that we are not going to change anything in this state if we keep electing the same people to do the same things,” Ronchetti said.
Republican candidates across the country such as Ronchetti have been accused by Democrats of supporting a lawsuit backed by Trump and several Republican attorneys general that could abolish the Affordable Care Act.
Ronchetti calls such accusations ridiculous. He said he wants to improve health care and said any replacement plan must include protections for people with pre-existing conditions and not cut Medicaid.
“So you can put that in 10-inch bold type: We want to cover pre-existing conditions and will protect Medicaid. Period. End of discussion,” he said.
The pandemic though has overshadowed most of the other pressing issues.
Discussion about another possible aid package that would, among other things, extend unemployment benefits and freeze certain types of foreclosure, have stalled due to disagreements about the size and providing aid to state and local governments.
Ronchetti said providing incentives to get people back in the workforce and for shuttered businesses to resume operation needs to be a central feature of any new COVID-19 relief bill.
“I think what we have to do is create a plan that gets people back to work, that gets people back to the life they left behind in March,” he said.
National unemployment currently hovers at about 10%. People still need help, Ronchetti said, but businesses need to continue to reopen despite recent spikes in cases, in a manner that balances public health and the economy.
He also expressed support for providing a liability shield that could protect employers from possible COVID-19-related lawsuits. However, those same businesses need to continue to adhere to social-distancing measures.
Unlike some conservatives who have questioned the effectiveness of masks, Ronchetti said masks and continuing social distancing are crucial in reopening and containing the virus’ spread.
He added Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham should be working with school districts throughout the state, so schools can safely reopen.
Ronchetti notes his daughters, like many other students throughout the state, have lost months of school time, with many districts lacking plans.
Ultimately though, how schools reopen should be based on plans designed by school districts — to fit the needs and local cases of the virus — that will ensure the safety of students and teachers, Ronchetti said.
Though he said the federal government has a meaningful role in making decisions when it comes to testing and distributing personal protective equipment, Ronchetti said when it comes to other aspects of the response to the virus, a national plan is not needed.
Any such plan, he said, would ignore the fact that numbers of cases in communities vary, and would be “top-down government.”
“That’s the problem we are having in this country in general. I think there is too much federal government pushing it all the way down. What is really smart is adjusting each community to adjust as they need for this,” he said.
Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext, 301, or firstname.lastname@example.org.