PACs and nonprofits fuel 2020 elections

As is the case every year, the month or so before election day is one of the busiest of the year for both political contributions and spending. Voters begin to tune in, early and absentee voting starts, and candidates make their final pitches to the electorate. Political action committees (PACs) and other groups spend considerable amounts to influence election outcomes. This year, even with a raging pandemic, those dynamics have held. Here are the top 20 groups raising money during the Third General Reporting Period, which covered October 6th – 27th.  Political action committees or independent expenditure groups have raised an aggregate sum of $8.3 million since June.

Spending in New Mexico’s 2nd district congressional busts into stratosphere

This year’s rematch between Democrat Xochitl Torres Small and Republican Yvette Herrell in New Mexico’s second congressional district is one of the most closely-watched in the nation, generating tensions within the state’s oil and gas industry and tens of millions in outside spending. Roll Call has identified Torres Small as one of the 10 most vulnerable House incumbents up for re-election this year. The respected Cook Political Report rates the race as a tossup. 

At this point, candidates and outside groups have spent a combined sum exceeding $30 million. Spending in 2018 approached $14 million, in a year when across the country record spending was recorded. According to Matt Reichbach at the New Mexico Political report, the New Mexico record occurred in the 2006 race for New Mexico’s 1st congressional district seat, at $14.8 million.

Oil and gas support for Torres Small exposes internal divisions

Oil and gas infrastructure on New Mexico’s eastern plains. Marjorie Childress/NMID

Dressed in denim on a windy day in front of an oil and gas rig, Xochitl Torres Small looks into the camera and says, “Washington doesn’t get us,” then tells viewers she fought to get workers the coronavirus relief they deserve. 

The ad is just one of many in which Democrat Torres Small is positioning herself as an ally of oil and gas this election year as she strives to win a second term in New Mexico’s southern congressional district, one of just 26 of 435 House races across the nation declared a tossup by the respected Cook Political Report. It’s New Mexico’s most competitive high-profile contest. 

Two years after Torres Small beat former Republican state lawmaker Yvette Herrell by fewer than 4,000 votes out of nearly 200,000 cast, the two women are facing off again in 2020, and Torres Small is making sure to stress her oil and gas bona fidesOil and gas money powers the economy in the 2nd Congressional District and generations of families have come up through the oil patch in a solidly Republican swath of counties in southeast New Mexico. 

Xochitl Torres Small 2020 social media ad claiming her support for oil and gas workers. The first-term Democrat insists she would not vote to ban fracking, a drilling method that has greatly expanded U.S. fossil fuel production and flooded New Mexico with revenue before the pandemic crippled the state economy. Advocates who want to ban the procedure, which injects chemical laden water at high pressure into underground rock formations, say fracking threatens human health in addition to increasing greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels.

Democrats and Republicans urge early voting to avoid the pitfalls of the primary

After the coronavirus pandemic and record turnout led to shuttered polling places and mountains of absentee ballots slowing the count in June’s primary election, New Mexico county clerks say they’re hiring more election workers and opening more places to vote in person for the general election. Still, there is anxiety about how the system will handle what many across the political spectrum are calling “the most important election of a lifetime.”  Most believe it will take longer in 2020 to know some of the winners, particularly in New Mexico’s hotly contested southern congressional district. And the presidential election, nationally, appears unpredictable as well. Across the country, political strategists who have been encouraging absentee ballots for months have recently shifted to pushing early in-person voting. In New Mexico, public officials and advocates have coalesced around a common mantra: Vote early and be patient while the votes are counted.

Reject Birtherism 2.0

Before Donald J. Trump was president, he repeatedly demanded to see President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. A leader in a “birtherism” movement that openly called into question Obama’s citizenship, the bigotry by the then-New York developer and reality TV show celebrity helped propel him into the presidency in 2016. Is it any surprise then that this week Trump, now president, is reprising his role as Birther No. 1? In a press conference Thursday, President Trump gave credibility to racist conspiracy theories that call into question Kamala Harris’ eligibility to run as Joe Biden’s running mate.

Even if Albuquerque isn’t the next Portland you should pay attention

Federal agents are coming to Albuquerque, but officials have assured residents that New Mexico’s largest city isn’t the next Portland. In Portland, protests for racial justice have continued nonstop since the killing of George Floyd in late May but had decreased in size, according to the local paper, by the time the Trump administration sent in federal agents early this month, ostensibly to protect federal property and guard public statues. That injection energized the protests, leading to nightly confrontations as throngs of new and old protestors clashed with camo-wearing, unidentified police roaming the streets. The Oregon Attorney General, responding to accounts, has accused federal agents of whisking people away in unmarked vehicles without probable cause in at least two instances, and two federal watchdogs have opened investigations. 

Images of tear gassed crowds and burning statues in that Pacific Northwest city have flashed across the country, putting to bed the wisdom of thinking that a show of dominance can be a calming force. But those images are likely one goal of a president seeking re-election on a law-and-order platform. I anticipate more than a few campaign ads over the next three and a half months featuring clashes between federal agents and Portlanders with a man’s voice intoning order against chaos and violence in America’s cities.

Spending in New Mexico primary highlights dark money at work

As the Democratic primary in New Mexico’s third congressional district heated up in May, two mysterious groups– Avacy Initiatives and Perise Practical– began spending a combined $300,000 to support Teresa Leger Fernandez, now the Democratic nominee. The groups ran positive, even glowing advertisements about Leger Fernandez, but didn’t disclose who paid for the ads. Few details could be found about them online. This “dark money” spending drew significant criticism from other candidates, who condemned Leger Fernandez for not calling for removal of the ads. 

But a review by New Mexico In Depth of Federal Election Commission filings suggests the real goal was to deny another candidate in the race—Valerie Plame— the win by boosting the prospects of the Leger Fernandez campaign. 

It’s not uncommon for groups to spend money to support one candidate in order to prevent another candidate from winning. But when groups don’t disclose their donors, voters are left in the dark about the motives behind such efforts. 

“Our voting public is incredibly busy, and doesn’t have time to do research on every single one of the candidates,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico.

Oil and Gas plays big in elections, despite COVID-19

Crude oil storage tanks dot the landscape in San Juan County. Marjorie Childress/New Mexico In Depth

The oil and gas industry may have cratered over the last few months due to a steep drop in consumer demand brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s still a major player in shaping New Mexico’s state Legislature. 

Oil companies have pumped $1.1 million dollars into 2020 New Mexico primary election campaigns since last October. The industry distributed $180,000 of that total since March 11, the date the first COVID-19 case was identified in New Mexico and the economy subsequently began rapidly shutting down. 

The industry contributes large amounts to New Mexico politicians every election cycle, and runs its own campaigns independently as well. Such political spending by the industry occurs whether the oil industry is in one of its notorious “bust” cycles, or booming. Over the last couple of years, the industry has been booming, fueling an injection of billions of dollars into the state budget. 

Kathleen Sabo, executive director of New Mexico Ethics Watch, said the sheer size of the industry, and its importance to the state budget, gives it a great deal of influence. 

“Most legislators seem to be very careful around the industry,” said Sabo, “it’s not partisan.” Sabo said efforts to regulate the industry can generate comments at the statehouse from both sides of the aisle about “killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Indeed, New Mexico In Depth found in 2019 that no regulatory bills targeting oil and gas were successful during the legislative session without the blessing of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, despite strong Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate and a new Democratic governor. 

Its influence goes beyond campaign contributions, Sabo said.

Fewer polling places present challenges for Native voters

As the state gradually reopens from its coronavirus closure, it’s not only nurseries, bike shops and clothing stores that must figure out how to do business while maintaining social distancing—county clerks across the state are conducting their first primary election during a pandemic. But the number of polling places has been slashed, mail service has been interrupted in some areas and voting advocates are concerned that there will be folks, especially in Native American communities, who could be left out. Indian country has been hit hard by COVID-19, as NMID reported in mid-May. Native Americans represent 58 percent of the state’s cases. As a result, many Pueblo and tribal governments have closed their lands to non-residents and established curfews in an effort to slow transmission of the virus.

Western states lead the way in vote-by-mail elections

As the first wave of COVID-19 hits communities during primary season, states are still resolving how to hold elections in the middle of a pandemic. Voter advocates and organizers see the primaries as a test run, with many assuming that the November general election will also need to adapt to COVID-19. Since April, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, a virologist, and epidemiologists have predicted that another, potentially worse, wave of the virus will hit communities this fall and winter. Universal vote-by-mail is being promoted by secretaries of State and voter advocates alike as a clear solution to balancing voter access and public health concerns. In this area, the West leads the way.