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Senator Ben Ray Luján’s Stroke, and His Recovery for a Supreme Court Vote


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When Senator Ben Ray Luján got off the bed at 6:15 on the morning of Jan. 27, the world was spinning.

“As soon as I stood up, it felt like vertigo,” he recalled in an interview in his Senate office, one in every of only a couple of the Latest Mexico Democrat has given since suffering a stroke that would have killed him. The stakes stretched far beyond him: News had just emerged that President Biden would have a Supreme Court nomination, and Democrats within the narrowly divided Senate would desperately need his vote to substantiate a recent liberal justice.

On the time, he knew something was incorrect along with his body, but not what. He lay back down and closed his eyes for one more half-hour or so, then tried to stand up again. More spinning.

He called his chief of staff, Carlos Sanchez, who urged him to tell his doctor immediately.

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“It’s essential go to the emergency room,” the doctor said.

At that time, Luján said, “I actually wasn’t in a position to walk.”

He remembers “crawling around” on the ground, the vertigo was so bad. His sister Jackie, who lives nearby, soon arrived to assist.

“I want your strength,” he told her. She grabbed a broomstick for support, helped him down the steps in front of his house and helped him get to the hospital, half-hour away in Santa Fe.

Soon, he was on his method to a bigger medical facility in Albuquerque.

“You might see the fear in her eyes,” Luján said. “I still do not forget that.”

It’s a moment I can recognize.

Two days before Election Day in 2020, I had a thalamic ischemic stroke that left me temporarily unable to walk. I used to be hospitalized for 2 weeks.

I distinctly remember, as my family dropped me off on the emergency room, holding onto my wife’s hand as she touched the left side of my face. It was numb and tingling, and I wasn’t sure if I’d live or die, let alone feel normal again.

Luján’s stroke was an identical shock. At 49, he’s one in every of the Senate’s younger members. “This got here out of the blue,” he said. “I didn’t have early warning signs. I used to be pretty physically lively.”

It was a reminder, he said, that “every one in every of us goes through challenges. All of us have nightmares. Something bad can occur in our life.”

Like me, Luján didn’t make it to the hospital in time to interrupt up the blood clot. May is National Stroke Awareness Month, and he wants others to know the warning signs.

Down the center of the back of his skull, Luján still bears the scar of the surgery that relieved the pressure on his cerebellum, the a part of the brain that affects balance and posture. After several days of close commentary, doctors decided to remove a portion of his skull the scale of a silver dollar.

The surgeons described the procedure in a video Luján released on Feb. 13, a bit over two weeks after the stroke.

Though he still has some tingling in his right hand, the scar is the one visible sign of what happened. His speech is rapid and completely fluid.

“I feel like I’ve come back stronger,” he said, joking that the stroke had helped him drop a couple of kilos. “I fit into my clothing higher.”

With Democrats holding the barest control of the Senate, the stroke threatened to do greater than upend Luján’s life. If he weren’t in a position to return, the party may need needed to delay a vote on President Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, risking her confirmation.

“I want to get out of here,” Luján recalled considering. “I want to find a way to solid that vote, because in my head, I used to be the one which was going to forestall this from happening. And also you didn’t want that in your shoulders, right? That was bad for the country.”

He said he was “very proud” to solid his vote for Ketanji Brown Jackson, who will change into the primary Black woman to hitch the Supreme Court, only a couple of weeks after leaving the hospital.

Luján is an increasingly rare figure in a polarized Washington. He’s universally known within the Senate as a form and thoughtful colleague, someone who builds relationships with adversaries, seeks out bipartisan projects and offers a cheery hello to everyone he passes within the hallways.

A 2019 Politico profile of Luján, written while he was still an up-and-coming lawmaker, carried the headline, “Can a pleasant guy like Ben Ray Luján elbow his method to the highest?” Ultimately, he decided to run for Senate in 2020 as an alternative of climbing the leadership ranks within the House.

While he was within the hospital, he received texts from Republican colleagues, even those he didn’t know well. “Several of them would reach out to me every single day,” he said. “Just: ‘Hey, man, you’re on my mind. Checking on you. Sending you’re keen on and support.’”

Rehabilitation was hard. At times, his body desired to steer him to the left. His physical therapists would test him by walking backward or attempting to nudge him off-balance. “I kept telling them, ‘Nobody can do that!’” he said.

At one low point, he balked at what he was being asked to do. One nurse, a young man named Tyler, told him, “Look, Ben, you’ll be able to be your personal worst enemy, or you’ll be able to decide to recuperate.”

He took that advice to heart, and his recovery has been remarkably swift — “miraculous,” he said. He attributes it to prayer, good doctors, the support of family members and the ability of positive considering. But Luján’s experience has left him determined to make a mark on this planet.

“Having survived this, I do know that there’s a number of work I still should do,” he said. “And I plan to do it.”

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Political ads are frequently pretty straightforward. Shoot a gun to point out you’re tough. Wear a barn jacket to point out you’re normal. And, in case you’re a Republican incumbent facing a primary from the proper, fit as many images of Donald Trump as possible into 30 seconds to point out you’re loyal.

But in Representative Nancy Mace’s latest ad, the subtext is tougher to identify.

After the Capitol riot, Mace, a Republican congresswoman from South Carolina, appeared ready to hitch a small group of her G.O.P. House colleagues in holding Trump accountable. But shortly after becoming a cable news star for criticizing her party’s leader, she retreated back into his camp and voted against impeaching him.

That didn’t stop Trump from backing a primary challenger, Katie Arrington.

Mace is receiving help from one other South Carolina politician whose initial anger toward Trump after Jan. 6 also seems to have dissipated: Nikki Haley, a former governor who served as Trump’s United Nations ambassador.

In a recent ad, Haley speaks on to the camera as she calls Mace “tough as nails” and praises her as protecting the border, cutting taxes and opposing abortion. As she speaks, the ad shows clips of Mace with constituents and her family.

Haley also credits Mace for flipping the district in 2020 and says “she’ll keep it Republican.”

In relation to keeping the district Republican, there’s some history there.

In 2018, Mace’s current primary challenger, Arrington, mounted a primary challenge against Representative Mark Sanford, beating him after Trump endorsed her on Election Day just hours before polls closed.

The district seemed to be protected for Republicans, and Trump spent much of the campaign cycle gloating about Sanford’s loss. But in an upset, Joe Cunningham, a Democrat, defeated Arrington.

Two years later, Mace ousted Cunningham. But Trump is again backing Arrington, accusing Mace of betraying him.

The eventual winner of the first is heavily favored to prevail in the overall election, especially after redistricting, which made the First Congressional District even friendlier to Republicans. But in her ad for Mace, Haley subtly warned voters that nothing is guaranteed on this South Carolina district.

J. Austin McCubbin, Mace’s campaign manager, said her constituents knew her as “the fighter who won this seat back for Republicans after it was lost in 2018 for the primary time in nearly 40 years,” adding, “They know she’s the one who will win in November.”

— Blake & Leah

Is there anything you’re thinking that we’re missing? Anything you should see more of? We’d love to listen to from you. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.

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