SANTA FE — Two outside political groups free from New Mexico’s campaign contribution limits spent nearly $4 million to influence legislative races, which ended up with Democrats retaining control of the House and Senate.
According to a campaign finance report filed on Thursday, a political committee with ties to Republican Gov. Susana Martinez spent $2.4 million in the primary and general election campaigns. The group — Reform New Mexico Now — paid for advertising and mailings in 31 House and Senate races, including several Democratic primary contests, according to Jay McCleskey, the governor’s political adviser.
A Democratic-leaning political group called Patriot Majority New Mexico dumped almost $1.4 million into general election contests. The group was formed in August and received most of its money from labor unions. It backed about 20 House and Senate candidates, according to Craig Varoga, the PAC’s president and a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic strategist.
The two political committees were the biggest spenders in legislative contests, and were free to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money because they didn’t coordinate their campaign strategy with candidates.
Federal court rulings have given the green light to corporations, unions and other groups to operate outside of contribution restrictions if they’re spending independently on advertising that advocates the defeat or election of a candidate.
This was the first election in New Mexico in which legislative candidates were subject to limits on how much they could accept from donors — $5,000 per election from a political committee and $2,300 from an individual for a primary or general election. The state’s contribution limits went into effect after the 2010 general election.
Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat, said he expected this year’s costly campaigns to increase support among Democrats and Republicans for legislation to tighten campaign disclosure requirements on outside political groups. He said it’s not possible under federal court rulings to impose contribution limits on the groups, however.
“There is no question the landscape is dramatically different after this election cycle,” Wirth said in an interview. “We’re going to have 112 experts on campaigns having just been through something that I don’t think has ever been seen before at the state legislative level.”
All 112 seats in the House and Senate were up for election this year.
The governor’s allies formed Reform New Mexico Now to chip away at Democratic majorities in the House and Senate in hopes of improving chances for her legislative agenda during the second half of her term.
The committee raised $122,500 from Oct. 31 through Dec. 1, including $50,000 from a Farmington company, M & R Trucking, and $25,000 from Foster Friess, an investor from Jackson, Wyo.
Martinez also operates a political committee, Susana PAC, that directly contributed money in legislative races and was able to coordinate its political work with candidates. That group has spent almost $1.1 million since last year.
Some candidates stepped up their spending to try to counter the ads and mailings paid for by outside groups.
In southeast New Mexico, Senate President Tim Jennings, a Roswell Democrat, lost his re-election despite outspending his GOP opponent 6-to-1. Jennings spent almost $399,000 to about $66,300 by Republican Cliff Pirtle of Roswell.
Jennings was among the Democrats targeted by Reform New Mexico Now. The group tried unsuccessfully to defeat Senate Majority Michael Sanchez, a Belen Democrat, who spent nearly $291,800 on his campaign — nearly four times more than his GOP opponent.