Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
WASHINGTON – Special interest groups from outside the state have flooded New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District primary race with campaign cash ahead of the polls opening on Tuesday, raising questions about the sources and motivations behind the money.
Outside groups representing women, veterans, Native Americans and others have spent more than $2 million on television advertisements, direct mail, text message appeals and other media both for and against the New Mexico candidates.
The top three contenders in the Democratic primary race have, combined, raised $2.5 million for their own campaigns.
Candidates benefiting from the outside groups’ involvement in the 1st Congressional District race are former U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez; Debra Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo member who would be the first Native American woman elected to Congress; and former UNM law professor and civil rights activist Antoinette Sedillo Lopez.
The three had far outpaced the remaining Democratic candidates in the crowded primary field and were locked in a tight race, according to a Journal Poll published last Sunday. But 29 percent of poll respondents were undecided – and they’re the voters that outside groups and the campaigns are desperately trying to influence.
Peter Quist, research director at FollowTheMoney.org, a nonprofit that tracks money in politics, said New Mexico’s 1st District contest is a prime example of how out-of-state groups are increasingly trying to tilt the scales in congressional contests across the country. It’s not because they’re interested in shaping a particular state’s political leadership, but because they want to help decide which party wins control of the U.S. House and Senate.
“It is a growing trend,” Quist said of the outside spending, adding that the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which allowed unlimited spending by unions and both nonprofit and for-profit corporations, helped open the floodgates.
These outside groups can spend as much as they want to affect a congressional race’s outcome, as long as they do not coordinate with any particular campaign.
Overall, this election cycle, Martinez has been the top beneficiary from outside cash in the 1st District race, with about $1.1 million spent by groups based outside New Mexico, through May 16, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, which compiles extensive campaign spending data.
Almost all of the money used to help Martinez – a 15-year member of the Army Reserves – came from veterans groups and a moderate political action committee organized by wealthy benefactors in places such as Chicago and New York.
Meanwhile, outside groups spent $534,000 through mid-May to benefit Sedillo Lopez in the race.
That half-million dollars in help came courtesy of the Latino Victory PAC, which aims to get Hispanic progressives elected to public office. Latino Victory’s 30-second ad aims to burnish Sedillo Lopez’s progressive credentials.
While running a distant third in the outside spending category, Haaland still benefited from a $230,000 ad buy from 7Gen Leaders, a political action committee financed by Indian tribes across the country. A 30-second television ad on Haaland’s behalf touts her support for Planned Parenthood, Medicare for all and a move toward renewable energy.
The numbers were far different when looking at the candidates’ own campaign coffers: More than half of both Sedillo Lopez’s and Haaland’s direct campaign contribution came from donors outside New Mexico, while 80 percent of Martinez’s came from New Mexicans.
John Feldman, a retired UNM law professor, longtime political observer and supporter of Haaland’s candidacy, said he is disturbed by the trend of outside groups’ involvement. He fears that it subverts local democracy.
Feldman said a bipartisan outside group called No Labels, which a Chicago Sun-Times investigation found was affiliated with the Forward Not Back political action committee running ads on behalf of Martinez and other moderate candidates around the country, is muddying the waters in the New Mexico race. Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and former Republican New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg are among the wealthy benefactors who launched No Labels.
“I don’t think this guy who owns the Chicago White Sox should be making decisions about who New Mexico’s congressional representatives should be,” Feldman said of the attempt to help Martinez. “They are doing in New Mexico what they have done across the country. I think it’s un-American and quite sinister.”
According to its website, No Labels is “working to build a durable bipartisan bloc in Congress.” The group has backed Republican and Democratic moderates, sometimes triggering the ire of partisans in both parties.
At the same time, the independent expenditure arm of Emily’s List – a powerful political action committee that works to elect women who support abortion rights to Congress – has been airing almost $200,000 worth of television ads in New Mexico taking issue with Martinez’s record as a prosecutor and blaming him in part for Albuquerque Police Department shooting of civilians.
The Martinez campaign has characterized the ad as factually flawed and disingenuous, and he has received support from some family members of police shooting victims.
Representatives of Emily’s List and Women Vote! – the group’s independent expenditure arm – did not respond to the Journal’s request for comment on the strategy last week.
“The stated mission of Women Vote! is to elect more women to Congress,” said Brian Sanderoff, the Journal’s pollster and an expert on New Mexico politics. “Rather than endorse one of the two women who are running in the 1st Congressional District Democratic primary election, Women Vote! is running ads against the strongest male candidate in the race. This strategy appears to be intended to increase the odds of electing one of the two female candidates.”
Ryan Cangiolosi, chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, took a swipe at all the Democratic candidates in the field and said the outside money will help ensure their support of “left-wing” political positions if they are elected.
Janice Arnold-Jones, the Republican nominee, does not have a primary opponent in Tuesday’s election. Neither does Lloyd Princeton, the Libertarian candidate in the race.
“Democrats and outside special interests groups are spending millions of dollars in this race because each radical left-wing candidate is pandering to the most liberal faction in the Democratic Party, which proves how out of touch they are with central New Mexico voters,” Cangiolosi said in a statement emailed to the Journal. “Not one of these candidates wants to work with the president or Republicans in Congress to advance our economy and make our state and our country stronger.”
Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran and chairman and founder of the Washington-based VoteVets PAC, which supports Democrats and has pumped $180,000 into the New Mexico primary race on behalf of Martinez, said the group did so because it believes in Martinez, a military man. But Stoltz also said VoteVets targeted New Mexico because airing television and radio ads is inexpensive compared with larger markets in other states, and chances are that whoever wins the 1st District seat will keep it for a long time.
Indeed, only five people have held New Mexico’s 1st District seat, and its occupancy has changed only when an incumbent died, retired or left it for another job or political race.
“The media market was cheap, there were three candidates good enough to go up on media, and there was a coalition for Damon to win the race, which is Latinos, men and Hispanic women,” Soltz said. “There is a lot of talk about this being the Year of the Woman, and that’s true – there are a lot of women voting. But there are two qualified, well-financed women in this race, and we felt that Damon was the stronger Latino candidate.”
As for the candidates themselves, Sedillo Lopez had raised the most campaign cash as of the last Federal Elections Commission filing deadline on May 16, hauling in just over $1 million in contributions, including a $200,000 loan to herself, the Center for Responsive Politics reported. The biggest chunk of Sedillo Lopez’s donations – about $254,000 – came from lawyers and educators.
Haaland was second in fundraising, with $836,709, and human rights groups and retirees contributed about $222,000 of that amount.
Martinez had raised $699,263, with lawyers and retirees donating about $174,000 of his campaign funds and also including a $173,000 loan to himself.
But while Martinez was in third place for fundraising, he collected by far the largest percentage of his cash from New Mexicans, with 80 percent of his war chest coming from inside the state.
Sedillo Lopez, while leading in the money race, collected just 34 percent of her donations in-state.
About 46 percent of Haaland’s donations came from New Mexicans.