Johnson says his high-desert home state of 2 million residents stands to gain considerable influence in the Senate if he is elected as a freewheeling swing vote — possibly a decisive vote in the chamber, as Republicans defend a slim 51-49 majority in November elections.
Democrats are being forced to defend what had seemed like a secure seat for incumbent first-term Sen. Martin Heinrich, fending off Johnson's allure among voters as an uncompromising fiscal conservative with a quirky brand of free-market, pro-cannabis policies.
"Arguably if elected I would be the swing vote in the U.S. Senate, and that would be a big yank for New Mexico. It should benefit New Mexico in a really big way," Johnson tells a crowd of two dozen at a candidate forum in Tucumcari, near a string of abandoned highway-side motels, on the state's rural eastern plains.
Nationwide, Democrats are defending 26 incumbent Senate seats, while Republicans are defending only nine. The stakes in fall Senate races have been on dramatic display in Supreme Court confirmation proceedings amid accusations of sexual misconduct against nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Johnson says he would be a voice of common sense in the Senate and a rare nonpartisan vote during Supreme Court confirmation proceedings — and an impartial judge in the event of a Senate impeachment trial against President Donald Trump, though he sees no impeachable offense so far.
Until then, Johnson applauds Trump's work at diminishing regulations, and denounces White House immigration policies as shameful and bad for the economy. The real political crisis and looming threat to America's wellbeing, Johnson says, is runaway deficit spending. And the day of reckoning will come, according to Johnson, in the form of Venezuela-style inflation if the U.S. continues to spend beyond its means, on military and social programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
"I applaud Trump on the tax cuts, but where is the spending reduction to go along with that," said Johnson, who wants to join the Senate Budget Committee that sets out Congress' broad blueprint for levels of federal revenues and spending.
Prominent Democrats say Johnson can't barge his way onto the committee, and they suspect he would readily collaborate to torpedo federal health care and nutritional subsidies that New Mexico relies on heavily.
Dede Feldman, a Democratic political strategist who served in the state Senate when Johnson was governor, questions Johnson's credentials as a voice of moderation, noting he was held in contempt as governor by the New Mexico Supreme Court for persisting with aggressive welfare changes without legislative approval.
At a community bank in Tucumcari, Johnson finds a receptive audience for his criticism of burdensome federal financial regulation in a meeting with the board of directors — and some astonishment at his calls to decrease military spending by 23 percent, cut Medicare and retool Social Security.
"I'm 80 years old. I'm on Medicare, I receive Social Security, and I'm retired from the military," said Bill Curry, a board member at the Tucumcari Federal Savings and Loan Association, which was founded during the 1930s Great Depression. "You've hit me on four different things."
Johnson doesn't back down, cautioning social and retirement programs won't be around for future generations without prompt action. He derides as a budget-buster his opponent Heinrich's support of "Medicare-for-all" legislation aimed at making strides toward universal health insurance coverage.
Heinrich has cast himself as a defender of federal health and retirement benefits, and proponent of the new outdoor-recreation and renewable-energy economies — a progressive hedge in an oil-based state economy.
Heinrich, with youthful looks at age 46, has turned his committee appointments, including Armed Services, into a venue for expedient constituent politics in support of the New Mexico's military facilities and veterans.
Johnson's answer to escalating medical costs is less regulation and even easing licensing requirement for medical professionals. His faith in free-market solutions with less regulation spills over into everything from oilfield methane emissions to public education, where Johnson supports government spending on independent schools through vouchers.
Pollsters and analysts see obstacles to Johnson building a quick coalition, after his late entry to the race in August. "There are a lot of unaffiliated registered voters, but they tend to vote in half their numbers on low-turnout elections," said pollster Brian Sanderoff, of Research & Polling in Albuquerque. "They're less likely to vote in nonpresidential election cycles."
New Mexico's Republican Party is calling Johnson a spoiler, saying he will draw votes from their candidate — construction contractor and political newcomer Mick Rich — playing directly into Democrats' hands.
Johnson dismisses the GOP as a lost cause this year in New Mexico, which sided with Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a wide margin and twice backed Barack Obama. "I do not think that a Republican can win a statewide race in New Mexico. I think that Trump has polluted those chances," he said.
As a Republican governor, Johnson vetoed more than 700 bills in perpetual standoffs with a Legislature run by Democrats, vetoing the entire budget in his final year only to have legislators override him. His advocacy as governor for marijuana legalization, beginning in 1999 when the stance was unpopular, still provides a political calling card — one that Johnson says speaks to his honesty regardless of political consequences.
Campaign disclosure filings show Johnson also is an investor in the nascent legal marijuana sector and a professional adviser to a cannabis hedge fund. He is a recreational user himself — in a state that regulates medical marijuana access but still penalizes recreational cannabis.
Heinrich, the Democrat, recently threw his support behind legalizing marijuana, while Johnson already is contemplating how to provide pardons for legions of drug-possession convicts. For Johnson, a third act in politics at age 65 would mean setting aside a lifestyle of 100-day winter ski seasons and summer endurance bicycle rallies along the Continental Divide. Barnstorming through tiny towns to shake hands and deliver yard signs, Johnson said Trump has created the perfect storm for a Libertarian or truly independent candidate to join Congress and broker majority votes — calling Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine independents in name only.
Stopping unannounced at a barbecue stand at midday, Johnson ignites flickers of recognition and then conversations that often turn to his thoughts on cannabis. "I love his policies," said Jace Alderson, 61, of Moriarty, recalling Johnson's hard-line stance against government spending as a Republican governor. "It doesn't matter what party he is."