New Mexico political donors are increasingly directing their money to committees run by individual elected officials instead of the political parties that traditionally served as clearing houses for campaign cash.
The shift has given the elected officials and their political action committees – including Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s Susana PAC and the Democratic House Speaker’s Ken Martinez Leadership Fund – more clout in setting course for their respective parties. It has increasingly left state party leaders watching from the sidelines.
Evidence of the trend was clear in a new round of state campaign finance reports filed last week.
Over the past six months, Susana PAC raised six times what the Republican Party of New Mexico hauled in for its state election efforts – $313,000 for the PAC, $52,000 for the party.
On the Democratic side, Martinez’s PAC raised five times as much as the state party for state campaigns – $171,000 to the PAC, $33,000 to the party.
The PACs are a unique resource. With fewer restrictions on their use, funds can be transferred to other candidates as the official sees fit. The added flexibility means up-and-coming candidates can seek the blessings of the PAC operators without regard for the opinions of party leaders who once were among the first visits paid by a new candidate for elected office.
The cash shift is stoked by a sense of personal gain many donors get out of giving campaign cash directly to an elected official who they believe will use it to achieve maximum gains, said UNM political science professor Lonna Rae Atkeson.
The issue for a prospective donor, Atkeson said, might be, “What can the party give me? Not that much, because the party doesn’t have any institutional power. It doesn’t have any representation. But if I give to a legislator or an executive or someone who actually has official power, then I’m potentially gaining private benefits.”
“The benefit for the donor is much higher,” Atkeson said.
Republicans are looking to raise money for more than Martinez’ 2014 presumed re-election bid. Also on deck is an effort to win over at least three new seats in the state House and take control of that chamber for the first time since they had a year in power in 1953.
The cash race is seen by some Republicans as a competition for resources between the party and Martinez, whose campaign operation might have different ideas on how to accomplish the goal of winning control of the House.
The perception of GOP-governor competition on strategy and spending arose after some in the party took issue with Martinez’ efforts in 2012 to use her PAC money to weigh into Republican primary election contests.
The state political parties have traditionally avoided any cash support for candidates until after primary elections and opposing major party candidates have been chosen for the general election.
For the Republican Party, it’s been a challenge to woo donors to write a check to the party rather than a popular Republican governor preparing for a re-election bid – and who can accept more than state campaign finance caps allow by directing funds into her independent PAC.
Party fundraising down
The state Republican Party’s $52,000 fundraising haul for its state campaign fund over the past six months represented a 51 percent loss compared with what it raised during the same period in 2011. That was an off-election year similar to 2013, but Susana Martinez’ personal PAC was in its infancy, and the governor had not begun re-election fundraising.
Meanwhile during the same period, Martinez over the past six months raised more than $2.1 million for her re-election account, largely culled from out-of-state donors. That fundraising success suggests the $313,000 raised by the governor’s PAC will go to aid other candidates rather than her own election efforts.
Earlier this year, during the fundraising period between November and April, the Republican Party reported being down about 15 percent from its 2011 fundraising performance. However, Martinez and her PAC were prohibited by state law from fundraising during a majority of that period that overlaps with the state legislative session.
Only so much
Republican Party Chairman John Billingsley said donors’ increased interest in giving directly to the governor’s PAC has made the party’s job more difficult.
Billingsley ran for the party chairmanship last year on the premise that the party should distance itself from political PACs that “take sides” in Republican primaries after Susana PAC influenced the outcome of a few Republican legislative races.
“When you come across things like that, it’s always a concern, I won’t lie to you,” Billingsley said. “It’s a concern I think everybody has always had, simply because, even though we’re all on the same team and we work together, it does in fact create some problems for (the party to provide) down-ballot support.”
Billingsley noted the most recent state campaign finance report through Oct. 1 that showed the party collecting less than half what it had in 2011 did not include several thousand dollars in donations that came in late, after a late-September fundraiser. He said he hoped the party might regain its pace by the end of the year.
Political analyst Brian Sanderoff said the party will likely continue to be in a cash shortage because the pool of cash is finite.
“There’s only so much money out there, and just simple observation shows us where that money’s going to,” Sanderoff said. “We’ve got (more than) $2.3 million going to the governor or her PAC in the last six-month period and $50,000 going to the party. That speaks for itself.”
Democratic PAC woes
The state Democratic Party has experienced a similar fundraising trend, with voters favoring contributions to the PAC of House Speaker Martinez, of Grants, over the state party’s state legislative fund. Martinez was elected speaker in January.
Although Ken Martinez is a lesser-known figure in state politics, the fact his PAC has driven the party’s most recent fundraising haul with $171,000 in contributions over the past six months is a sign that Democrats see the legislative races as the top focus for the coming election year and trust the speaker to best utilize the cash resources for viable candidates, Sanderoff said.
“The people who have the money control the money,” Sanderoff said. ” … The numbers tell you where the money is flowing to. People would rather give to the candidates than the party.”
The Democratic Party reports over the past six months that it collected nearly $33,000 for state campaigns, a total nearly $9,000 more than the $24,000 raised during the same months of 2011.
Democratic Party Chairman Sam Bregman said the party has pushed to expand its fundraising from past years but still has work to do to ensure it can chip in, come election season.
“It’s always difficult to raise money. It just means you have to work harder, and we will continue to do that,” Bregman said. “Kenny Martinez raising money doesn’t bother me. The party just needs to keep doing it as well.”
Without a clear candidate for governor to rally behind, many Democrats have put their cash behind Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who is up for re-election next year. As of July, Udall reported $1.5 million cash on hand, far outpacing the New Mexico Democratic groups looking to have a say in next year’s election.
Udall, however, does not operate a separate PAC independent of his campaign account.