By Andy Lyman
The NM Political Report
Just after 10 on a bright, but chilly Wednesday morning, Mick Rich strolled into a retro-looking coffee shop on historic Route 66 in Tucumcari. Making his way to the back of the restaurant, where the walls and windows were covered in “Mick Rich for Senate” campaign signs, he introduced himself to diners.
“I’m Mick Rich and I’m running for Senate,” he said to a few people eating bacon, eggs and stacks of pancakes.
Pushing 6 feet tall and bald, Rich made a point to stop at every table, both on the way in and out.
After less than an hour talking to about 15 people in Tucumcari, and with a cinnamon roll to go, Rich climbed into the back seat of “The Beast,” a four-ton rig, wrapped with the words “Mick Rich for Senate” and an attached living space, for the two-hour trip to Las Vegas, NM. The driver turned the ignition and the truck cab filled with a whirring sound as air filled bellows which serve as the truck’s suspension. Nothing about “The Beast” is subtle.
“It’s surprising how many people will take a photograph of the truck, ‘The Beast,’ and then post it on their Facebook or somewhere else,” Rich said. “It just gets a lot of attention.”
On his third day of his statewide town hall tour—dubbed the Hard Hat Town Hall Tour—Rich was doing his best to make sure potential voters knew his name. He and his campaign staffers had made their way through two Republican-friendly counties in the southeast part of the state and were heading north toward country dominated by Democrats. NM Political Report rode along in “The Beast” with the the Republican, who wants to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich.
The Hard Hat
Rich, 64, has lived in New Mexico, working in the construction industry, for nearly four decades. In the late 1980s he started his own company, Mick Rich Contractors. He married his “college sweetheart” and together they had four kids—the youngest of whom is now in college.
The political newcomer is running on a relatively standard Republican platform. He opposes stricter gun control laws and abortion and wants to increase border security. But ask him about specific policies and he’ll get at some of the nuances. When it comes to building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Rich will mention it’s not feasible everywhere due to natural boundaries or point out that increasing border security could also mean increasing resources for the Border Patrol. Alternatives to oil and gas is another nuanced issue for Rich. While he seems to like the idea of solar energy—“The Beast” has solar panels on the roof—Rich said he questions the economic and energy efficiency of wholly converting the state’s power structure to wind and solar.
“Does it really make sense to tear down a power plant and build a whole different power plant?” he asked. “And do you really save any money?”
His views on President Donald Trump, who looms over all election races this year, are not simple either.
On the road to Las Vegas, Rich told NM Political Report Trump’s words make people nervous, but his actions aren’t always as bad. To Rich, Trump’s tariffs on aluminum and steel were a “shot across the bow” and a way to cut a better deal. And Trump’s public rhetoric about North Korea, he said, were ends to justify means as Trump and the country’s leader Kim Jong-Un agreed to meet to discuss nuclear weapons.
“I’ve learned to watch what people do and not what they say,” Rich said.
During a later stop in Raton, Rich qualified his positions a little more, using his often-used phrase to describe what he’s “good with.”
In the back room of a chicken wing and pizza restaurant in the conservative-leaning county seat of Colfax County, Rich told about 10 people he wants to serve the state of New Mexico, not the president or Congress.
“When [Trump is] good for the state, I’m good with him,” Rich said.
He also laid out his views on U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“He’s enforcing the laws and I’m good with that.”
For inspiration, Rich said he looks to two former New Mexico politicians.
He’s quick to praise the late U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici for having a “solid reputation” in New Mexico and said the six–term Republican senator had a way with the state’s national lab employees.
“When there was a problem [at Los Alamos National Lab], people were more concerned about Sen. Domenici than they were about the Department of Energy coming,” Rich said.
Domenici is often remembered for the large amounts of federal funding he secured for the state’s labs.
Rich said it “might surprise some people” that his other political inspiration was the late Gov. Bruce King, a Democrat.
King was “just a good guy,” Rich said. “He was easy to talk to and he cared about people.”
Following Rich through rural New Mexico, it became clear he was attempting to channel Domenici’s political values and King’s reputation for being a people person.
On the road
The tight schedule for his Hard Hat Town Hall tour meant Rich and his staffers ate their meals and snacks on the road. The breakneck pace of the trip created a relay-routine. At least one campaign staffer was always 30 minutes ahead of Rich on the road. Then, minutes after Rich arrived at the next hosting restaurant or coffee shop, a young staffer would gather campaign materials and leave to greet attendees and set out signs and flyers. And of course, the staffer would have a hard hat, key to the “Send a Hard Hat to Washington” slogan, ready at the next campaign stop.
In Las Vegas, like Tucumcari, campaign flyers and signs were ready for Rich. A small group of residents finished eating before Rich walked into the downtown pizza restaurant. By then, Rich had his talking points down and introduced himself and his ideas in just a few minutes, leaving time for questions. In at least two of the stops that day, Rich carefully answered questions and concerns affably, careful not to get into policy debates. Later in the day, a woman in Raton criticized the Los Alamos National Lab for its diverse employees, calling it “a mini U.N.” Rich pivoted that conversation to his time as a construction contractor working for the lab.
In Las Vegas, one resident complained that the city council relied too much on the federal government, particularly for fixing the leaky Peterson Dam, which is key to supplying water to the city.
“The prevailing attitude is, ‘let someone else fix it,’” the man said.
Rich replied that the federal government has a role in funding state projects.
“If I can add to that,” Rich replied. “A lot of times the federal government has a piece of the puzzle, but not all of it.”
That attitude is one thing that cements him firmly between his two opponents in November—although he only acknowledges one of them, Democratic incumbent Sen. Martin Heinrich.
At no time during his tour did he mention State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, the longtime Republican who announced his run for Senate and his switch to the Libertarian Party earlier this year. When NM Political Report asked Rich if he considers Dunn an opponent, Rich answered with a simple, “I don’t.”
That’s partly because, Rich said, Dunn’s candidacy was, at the time, challenged in state district court. The lawsuit was withdrawn by the challenger last week.
Dunn said Rich’s focus on Heinrich is political strategy.
Earlier this month, when Dunn said he would block federal Border Patrol agents from state land, Rich called it a political stunt. On the road to Las Vegas, Rich told NM Political Reporthe questioned why Dunn didn’t raise the issue sooner.
“I’m going, ‘You’ve been in office for three and a half years. So for three and a half years you didn’t do your job.’ Now you’re doing your job, that’s not what we need. The voters are going to see that, so the focus is Martin Heinrich,” Rich said.
Rich called both Dunn and Heinrich “career politicians.” Heinrich served two terms as a U.S. Representative and is finishing his first term in the U.S. Senate. Dunn is serving the last year of his first term ever in elected office, though he previously unsuccessfully ran for state senate.
At campaign stops, Rich accused Heinrich of being out of touch with New Mexico and spending too much time in Washington D.C.
“The reason this is a winnable race is he forgot about us,” Rich said of Heinrich.
One of Rich’s campaign promises is that he will not live full time in Washington D.C., but instead regularly travel back to New Mexico.
Dunn bucked Rich’s criticisms, saying he’d easily beat Rich in the race, and Heinrich steered clear of personal jabs at either Rich or Dunn.
“I don’t approach my races based on my opponents,” Heinrich said. “I try to approach them based on my values.”
The election is still about eight months away though and there are numerous factors that will play into it.
Heinrich’s approval rating is below 50 percent, but those who approve outnumber those who disapprove and Dunn likely has more name recognition than Rich. But Rich has party support from key Republican players and the party’s infrastructure.
Donors to the Rich campaign include former Republican National Committeeman Pat Rogers, former Republican gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidate Allen Weh as well as former New Mexico Speaker of the House Don Tripp.
While speaking to both NM Political Report and New Mexicans around the state, Rich doesn’t use the word “if” when talking about a win, but instead says “when.”
The difficulty of running for one of the highest offices in New Mexico is not lost on Rich, or apparently many people he’s talked to.
“People ask me, ‘So you didn’t want to start out as a state senator?’” Rich said. “And I go, ‘Yeah that’s about right.’”
And he’s good with that.