Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A Texas-based political committee funded by a giant oil company is making a splash in several New Mexico legislative primary races.
With the June 2 primary election less than a month away, the group, called New Mexico Strong, has been sending out mailers and launching TV ads that depict Democratic incumbents alongside Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
But a Lujan Grisham spokeswoman said this week the governor has not endorsed the candidates – or given her approval for her image to be used in the political ads.
“No, the governor was not asked and did not consent to the images (shown in the campaign material),” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett told the Journal. “She is focused on the public health emergency at hand.”
And opponents of the lawmakers displayed in the campaign ads say the mailers are disingenuous because some of the incumbents have opposed certain measures pushed by Lujan Grisham – including the repeal of a long-dormant 1969 abortion ban and a red-flag gun law.
New Mexico Strong’s funding for this year’s election cycle comes primarily from a $350,000 contribution from Chevron Corp. in mid-February, according to state campaign finance reports.
The group functions as an independent expenditure committee – or super PAC – that is not required to abide by New Mexico’s campaign contribution limits, but cannot coordinate directly with candidates.
Sen. Gabriel Ramos, D-Silver City, one of the incumbents featured in the mailers, said he was surprised when the flyers came out. But he said the mailers accurately reflect his voting record on issues like early childhood education funding.
“Unfortunately, these are being sent out by PACs and we don’t have any control over them,” Ramos told the Journal. “I’m concentrating on my campaign.”
However, Siah Correa Hemphill, his opponent in the Senate District 28 primary race, said the mailers show that Ramos is the corporate-backed candidate.
“My plan is to go to Santa Fe and fight for the kids in my classroom, not Chevron,” Correa Hemphill told the Journal.
In all, progressive Democrats are challenging more moderate incumbents in this year’s primary election in at least five Senate districts around New Mexico.
The closely-watched primary races could play a role in determining how legislation dealing with abortion, marijuana legalization and other issues fare over the next four years, Roundhouse insiders say.
In recent days, New Mexico Strong has sent out mailers backing several of those incumbents, including Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee Chairman Clemente Sanchez of Grants and Ramos, who was appointed to the Senate by Lujan Grisham in 2019.
The political committee issued a statement late Thursday saying it had not intended to imply endorsements by Lujan Grisham.
Rather, the PAC said its intent was to “highlight” how the incumbents views aligned with the governor’s on issues such as rebuilding the economy, fighting for working families and ensuring health care access for those with pre-existing conditions.
In addition, Sean Comey, a senior adviser for Chevron, said the California-based company’s contributions were made in accordance with state and federal law.
“We make political contributions to support the election of candidates who believe, like we do, in the value of responsible oil and natural gas development,” Comey told the Journal.
Skyrocketing oil production in southeast New Mexico made the state the nation’s third-highest oil producer last year and boosted state revenue levels to record highs. But oil prices have plummeted in recent months, prompting some producers to cap their wells.
Before prices crashed, Chevron – and other oil companies – had made hefty campaign contributions to political committees and some of the senators who are seeking reelection.
“What this demonstrates is they’re doubling down on their money,” said Carrie Hamblen of Las Cruces, who is one of two Democrats running against Papen in Senate District 38.
Meanwhile, this isn’t New Mexico Strong’s first foray into state politics.
The super PAC, which was created in December 2017 and is based in Austin, Texas, was also active in New Mexico’s 2018 election cycle.
The PAC got more than $2 million from Chevron Corp. that year, and used some of the money on TV and online ads targeting Democrat Stephanie Garcia Richard in the state’s land commissioner race.
Despite the barrage, Garcia Richard went on to defeat Republican Pat Lyons in the general election by 8 percentage points.