SANTA FE – There’s been a deluge of hard-hitting campaign mailers in New Mexico legislative races, and candidates in key districts claim facts in the hit pieces are few and far between.
Take Senate Democratic floor leader Michael Sanchez, who says he’s never been to Hawaii, despite the claim in a mailer sent by a deep-pocketed pro-Republican political committee that he went to the Aloha State on a taxpayer-funded junket.
“I understand that my opponent and his big-money supporters are desperate to defeat me,” Sanchez, a Belen Democrat, said in a statement. “But lying to voters in order to be elected is not the way to address the issues that need to be debated regarding who can best represent District 29.”
The mailer was sent by Advance New Mexico Now, an independent expenditure committee, or super PAC, run by Gov. Susana Martinez’s political adviser, Jay McCleskey. The political committee has also targeted Sanchez in hard-hitting TV ads.
In a statement Wednesday, Jessica Perez, Advance New Mexico Now’s treasurer, did not directly acknowledge any error in the mailing but said the group takes accuracy issues seriously.
“Since Sen. Sanchez has complained about one particular flier, we have checked the records and are in the final stages of preparing a mailer that will inform the voters in his district about the totality of his trips, so that they will have a clear and accurate picture about his over 20 taxpayer-funded junkets,” Perez told the Journal .
Sanchez’s re-election campaign also said Wednesday that the longtime lawmaker has never met with Julie Benner, the wife of late Rio Rancho police officer Gregg “Nigel” Benner, despite claims to the contrary in a radio ad from Advance New Mexico Now.
That ad features a letter from Julie Benner, whose husband was shot and killed in the line of duty in 2015, that describes New Mexico’s laws dealing with violent crime as too lax and accuses Sanchez of being “cold and dismissive” to her and other relatives of crime victims, apparently in interactions at the Roundhouse.
Sanchez’s opponent in the Nov. 8 general election, Greg Baca of Belen, says he is not affiliated with the outside attacks and has complained about attacks against him from Sanchez’s campaign.
In one recent mailer, Sanchez’s campaign says Baca is backed by “pro-fracking” outside groups that want to dump their “cancer-causing poison” into water sources. That’s an apparent reference to Advance New Mexico Now getting hefty financial contributions from individuals – mostly from out of state – with ties to the oil and natural gas industries.
State Democratic Party officials held a news conference Wednesday to defend Sanchez that featured, among others, Valencia County resident Pam Cordova, who described the incumbent as a valuable member of the local community.
Meanwhile, other legislative candidates around the state are also saying political attacks against them are false.
House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, said Wednesday that he’s never been a member of a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, though he has attended at least one of the group’s meetings. That’s contrary to a mailer from Patriot Majority New Mexico, a pro-Democratic super PAC that’s received big donations from national labor unions.
The mailer describes Gentry as a member of ALEC and says the group has pushed to allow health insurance companies to deny coverage for mammograms and other types of cancer screenings.
“The claims made by the super PAC supporting my opponent are patently false,” Gentry told the Journal . “I have never been a member of this group. As a father of two daughters, I have consistently fought in Santa Fe to provide better health care for women.”
Both Advance New Mexico Now and Patriot Majority New Mexico are among a growing list of state super PACs. Such groups operate as independent expenditure committees, meaning they do not have to abide by state campaign contribution limits but are prohibited from coordinating directly with candidates.
New Mexico election code does not explicitly bar false campaign advertisements or provide penalties for using them. Other states have enacted such laws, but a federal judge in 2014 struck down an Ohio law on the grounds the government should not be able to determine what is “political truth.”
In addition, the Roswell City Council in 2015 repealed a provision in municipal law – due to concerns about its constitutionally – that prohibited false campaign advertising.
Journal staff writer Maggie Shepard contributed to this report.