Candidates and other political groups spent at least $19.3 million hoping to influence the 2012 U.S. Senate election won by Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich.
The overall spending was the most ever for a Senate race in New Mexico. It included about $7 million in campaign cash spent by former Republican Rep. Heather Wilson, and another $6.6 million spent by Heinrich, according to election-end finance reports filed by the candidates with the Federal Election Commission.
Beyond what the candidates spent, the 2012 Senate race was pushed to record spending levels by an additional $5.7 million spent by third-party political groups and super PACs, according to campaign finance data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The total spending for the open seat resulting from the retirement of longtime Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. was 53 percent more than the $12.6 million spent in 2008 when Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., vied for the other New Mexico seat in the U.S. Senate.
The 2008 contest, open because of the retirement of longtime Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, came before the 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United. That decision allowed independent groups and super PACs to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns when the efforts are independent of the candidates’ own campaigns.
Veteran New Mexico political analyst Brian Sanderoff, president of the Albuquerque-based Research & Polling Inc., said the shift in campaign finance laws led many to expect that spending on the 2012 Senate race would surge beyond what New Mexico voters had previously experienced.
“On the one hand, we were surprised by the $20 million (spent) which seems to be a ton of money for a small state like New Mexico,” Sanderoff said. “On the other hand, we saw it coming. … This would have been a ton more had it been a competitive race.”
Meanwhile, the money that did come from third-party groups and political action committees — about $2.4 million for Wilson and $3.3 million for Heinrich — apparently had little effect on the outcome, Sanderoff said.
Polls consistently showed Heinrich leading, from early in the race, before most of the outside money was spent, all the way through Election Day, when Heinrich beat Wilson by about 6 percentage points of the vote.
“All that money being spent didn’t seem to change the outcome,” Sanderoff said.
The highest-spending PAC in the Heinrich-Wilson race was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a national business group that spent $1.8 million in New Mexico primarily attacking Heinrich, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The chamber financed a series of attack ads and mailers criticizing Heinrich’s record on job creation and economic development as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives since 2009. It also attempted to focus attention on Heinrich’s vote against the Keystone XL pipeline and criticized his support of renewable energy industries.
A spokesman for the U.S. Chamber did not return calls or email requests for comment.
The runner-up in PAC spending was a coalition of environmental groups that together spent about $1.5 million attacking Wilson. That line of attack started within weeks of Wilson’s winning the Republican Party primary election in June. The groups focused on a claim that Wilson ignored water contamination issues related to oil and gas development while accepting campaign contributions from oil and gas companies as she served in the U.S. House from 1998 to 2009. Fact checkers during the campaign found the claim to be exaggerated and misleading.
The environmental coalition, which included the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and the Defenders of Wildlife Action Committee, has said Heinrich was the top recipient of their campaign funds during the 2012 election.
A spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund said during the campaign that the groups had spent as much as $4 million in advertising and political efforts on behalf of Heinrich. Campaign finance records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, however, found that the groups actually spent less than half that amount for Heinrich’s race.
A third major spender was a pair of national political groups run by Republican strategist Karl Rove that weighed in on the New Mexico race on behalf of Wilson. Rove’s American Crossroads PAC and Crossroads GPS political group together spent $1.1 million in New Mexico’s Senate race.
Wilson had previously served on the board of directors of Crossroads GPS, a connection Heinrich’s campaign criticized when the group began spending money in New Mexico to run attack ads.
Nationwide, the Crossroads groups spend more money on 2012 campaigns than any third-party group. The groups reported spending about $175.7 million on races across the U.S., according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Future PAC spending
Although total campaign spending, driven by PACs and independent political groups, reached a record high in 2012, Sanderoff said there’s no reason to expect that record will stand long.
The political groups, many of which were in their infancy for the 2012 campaign, will be more experienced in 2014 and better-prepared to raise and spend campaign cash, the political analyst said.
With Sen. Tom Udall preparing to run for re-election in 2014, odds are that PACs will again focus attention on the New Mexico Senate seat in the next campaign cycle.
“I think that it will continue to grow,” Sanderoff said of PAC money in New Mexico races. “And I think we will continue to see much more money being spent in the Senate races by these PACs. Wait until we have a competitive race.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal