Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce’s hopes of winning the Governor’s Office got a boost Tuesday, when he won a federal court order allowing him to transfer about $942,000 in his federal election account over to his 2018 state gubernatorial campaign.
The ruling could set a precedent in New Mexico election law while also reshaping next year’s race, as it would effectively double the amount Pearce – the lone GOP candidate – has in his campaign war chest.
At issue is whether Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and other state officials can apply New Mexico’s campaign contribution limits to money transferred from Pearce’s federal account. The state currently limits donations to no more than $5,500 for the primary and general election cycles.
In issuing an injunction that bars the secretary of state from enforcing those limits, U.S. District Judge Judith Herrera ruled that Pearce has constitutional rights to use the funds as “campaign speech” to boost his bid for the GOP nomination.
“Because the funds at issue are necessary for Representative Pearce to increase the quantity of his campaign speech for the 2018 gubernatorial race, the public interest in protecting the First Amendment is served by a preliminary injunction,” Herrera wrote in her 33-page ruling.
Pearce filed the lawsuit in July after Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, said he could use only a limited amount of his federal campaign account in next year’s contest.
The secretary of state has said state law and a 1996 court decision support her contention that campaign contribution limits apply to transfers from federal campaigns.
But Pearce argued that prohibiting the entire transfer would illegally discriminate against him and other federal officeholders because state officials are allowed to make such transfers between races in state campaigns.
For instance, former state Land Commissioner Pat Lyons was able to transfer the balance left over in his campaign account for a 2010 bid to serve on the Public Regulation Commission.
“Today’s ruling confirms what we have always maintained; the transfer of funds is fully compliant with the First Amendment, existing New Mexico law, a previous court ruling and a previous opinion from the Secretary of State’s Office,” Pearce campaign spokesman Greg Blair said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a Secretary of State’s Office spokesman said Toulouse Oliver was reviewing the judge’s decision and would then weigh her next move.
“The secretary of state has acted under the confines of current state law, and any changes would require either legislative action or judicial intervention,” spokesman Joey Keefe said. “Secretary Toulouse Oliver remains committed to enforcing New Mexico law.”
Pearce, a longtime southern New Mexico congressman, announced in July that he would forgo a re-election bid and instead run for governor.
He reported last month that he had received just over $1 million in contributions during the initial ramp-up of his campaign, including big donations from several businesses and individuals in the oil and natural gas industry.
Combined with the transfer from his federal account, that would bring the size of his total war chest to nearly $1.9 million with just over a year left before next year’s general election.
In his lawsuit, Pearce argued that not being allowed to transfer his entire federal campaign account for the benefit of his state campaign had stifled his free speech rights, while also prompting his campaign to hold off on hiring more staffers and launching political ads.
He said several progressive groups have already launched ad campaigns targeting him.
The Pearce campaign currently has just two full-time staffers working in New Mexico: finance director Andrea Todd-Goff and campaign manager Paul Smith, according to court filings.
Meanwhile, the state Democratic Party issued a statement Tuesday accusing Pearce of trying to circumvent the state’s campaign finance laws, adding, “At the end of the day, this decision highlights what’s wrong with the campaign finance system – it affords people with more money more political speech than those who do not have the same means to make their voices heard.”
Campaign costs up
New Mexico political races have become increasingly expensive in recent years, even though campaign contribution limits were enacted in 2010.
Gov. Susana Martinez, who is barred from seeking a third consecutive term in 2018, spent more than $8.7 million on her 2014 re-election bid – a figure that does not include spending by outside political committees on her behalf – and next year’s race to succeed her could be even costlier.
Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is giving up her Albuquerque-area congressional seat to run for governor, reported last month that she had received nearly $1.4 million in contributions.
The judge’s ruling would not have as much of an impact on Lujan Grisham, as she has drawn down her federal campaign account much more than Pearce has and had just over $10,000 in it as of September.
There are also three other Democrats competing for the nomination: Albuquerque media executive Jeff Apodaca, state Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, and political newcomer Peter DeBenedittis of Santa Fe. Both Apodaca and Cervantes have already lent hefty sums to their campaigns.
New Mexico’s general election will be held next November.