Super PACs dump money into NM legislative races

SANTA FESuper PACs — political committees that can spend unlimited amounts of money independently of candidates — are plowing bundles of out-of-state cash into New Mexico legislative races this year and filling mailboxes with campaign fliers.

With control of the House of Representatives at stake and all 70 of the chamber’s seats up for election on Nov. 4, three of the biggest-spending super PACs have already spent more than $1.3 million and have raised more money than many candidates.

A similar scenario unfolded during the 2012 election cycle, after a U.S. Supreme Court decision and subsequent court rulings changed the landscape for campaign spending.

“It’s our new reality,” said Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a group that has pushed for tougher disclosure laws for PACs. “You can’t just sit back and not play the game.”

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Pro-Democratic groups appeared to heavily outspend pro-Republican groups in New Mexico by Oct. 6, the end of the most recent reporting period. Campaign spending typically accelerates in the election season’s final weeks.

The free-flowing campaign cash comes as Republicans are aiming to seize outright control of the House for the first time in 60 years. Democrats currently hold a 37-33 majority in the chamber and have opposed some of Gov. Susana Martinez’s top legislative initiatives.

Members of the state Senate, which is also Democratically-controlled, are not up for re-election this year.

One super PAC trying to help Democrats retain their fragile majority in the state House, Patriot Majority New Mexico, raised about $1.1 million in the past month, according to a campaign finance report filed this week.

The group received most of its money from national labor unions, such as the National Education Association Advocacy Fund. Patriot Majority New Mexico has spent the most money by super PACs so far, about $1 million this year, primarily on radio ads and mailers.

Craig Varoga, the PAC’s president and a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic strategist, told The Associated Press the group’s goal is to “prevent a Republican Legislature from doing to New Mexico what a Republican Congress has done to our country.”

On the other side of the fence, a GOP-leaning group called Advance New Mexico Now reported Tuesday having raised about $400,000 in a four-week period, with a $150,000 donation coming from the Washington D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee.

Advance New Mexico Now is headed by Matt Chandler, a former Clovis-area prosecutor. It has spent about $140,000 this year, sending out mailers targeting Democratic legislative candidates in a handful of key House districts. That spending could increase in the final weeks before the general election.

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“It’s clear that Washington-based labor unions are committed to spending millions of dollars attacking Republican legislative candidates in New Mexico, and we are committed to helping ensure their messages aren’t drowned out by false and misleading attack ads,” Chandler said in a statement to the Journal .

The big-spending super PACs have come into play in New Mexico after changes were made to the state’s election laws, specifically new limits – first in place for the 2012 election cycle – on how much money individuals or political committees can contribute directly to candidates.

Independent political committees are not required to adhere to the contribution limits, provided they do not coordinate directly with candidates’ campaigns. That’s due in large part to a landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United.

In addition, the groups do not have to divulge which specific races they are targeting, though many of them do file periodic reports that show the source of their money. Some PAC heads have voluntarily disclosed to the Journal details about how they’ve spent their money on state House races.

Common Cause’s Harrison said most of the money raised by the biggest-spending super PACs in the 2012 election cycle came from out-of-state donors. She also said New Mexico political committee spending by all sorts of political action committees – not just super PACs – two years ago totaled about $14 million.

“I think we could see even more this time,” Harrison said.

In all, there are hundreds of political committees registered with the Secretary of State’s Office in New Mexico, though not all of them are currently active.

Many of them are traditional political committees that – unlike super PACs – can give directly to candidate’s campaigns but must abide by the contribution limits.

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Among the super PACs, a group called Verde Voters PAC reported raising $124,490 in the most recent reporting period and has now spent more than $130,000 this year.

The PAC has sent out campaign mailers in eight districts in behalf of Democratic candidates and has launched radio ads and phone programs in some of those districts.

“Verde Voters PAC has an established track record of protecting pro-conservation candidates and has made significant strides towards a conservation majority in the Legislature,” Victor Reyes, the director of the political committee, said in a statement.

While a majority of the 70 House seats are seen as “safe” districts due to their political composition, roughly 10 races have been described by lawmakers of both political parties as being key to determining which party will hold a majority come January.

Those races include several Albuquerque-area contests, such as incumbent Democratic Rep. Emily Kane facing GOP challenger Sarah Maestas Barnes in House District 15 and Republican Rep. Paul Pacheco running against Catherine Begaye, a Democrat, in House District 23.

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