Generous distribution of campaign cash by Sen. Peter Wirth and Rep. Brian Egolf may have contributed to their elevation to top legislative leadership roles.
The new Democratic legislative leaders and their political action committees outspent their Republican counterparts. They donated money to candidates in competitive and noncompetitive races, and to PACs run by other Democratic lawmakers.
And PACs overseen by Egolf, who is expected to become Speaker of the House today, spent considerable money on consultants to research and strategize for candidates, helping Democrats recover the state House with a 38-32 majority.
Outgoing Republican House Speaker Don Tripp’s PAC, on the other hand, spent the bulk of its money donating to candidates and their PACs.
“We lost the House so maybe they had a better strategy,” Tripp said.
Despite the defeat of Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, whom Wirth replaces, Democrats increased their majority in the Senate by two, to 26-16. And Wirth’s generous giving may have helped. He gave $46,000 to Democratic senatorial candidates of the $75,200 he spread around.
It’s typical for lawmakers in leadership or aspiring to leadership to spread their money around, via their own campaign accounts or leadership PACs, said Ed Bender, executive director for the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
“You see this in state after state,” Bender said. “They raise so much money, their stars just to continue to rise.”
New Mexico In Depth reported on the seeming “shell game” played when lawmakers in safe seats, particularly legislative leaders, raised money for their candidate campaigns and PACs. That money was then funneled to the most competitive races that helped decide control of the Legislature.
Super PACs, which may take unlimited donations and spend freely as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates or political parties, played a larger role in competitive legislative races in 2016.
Typically funded by unions on the Democratic side and business interests on the Republican side, super PACs sent mailers, created websites and aired radio and TV ads in 2016. Often those messages were negative, aimed at persuading voters to oppose one candidate or another.
But those aren’t the type of PACs created by Wirth and Egolf. They were traditional PACs, governed by contribution limits and allowed to coordinate with candidates, whose numbers also have risen in recent years.
In 2016, more lawmakers created traditional PACs, which moved money around to key legislative contests.
Dem leaders wage campaign to take back the House
Egolf oversaw two leadership PACs, the House Democratic Campaign Committee and the New Mexico Defense Fund. And Republican House leaders had similar efforts underway.
The two Democratic PACs spent more than $790,000 compared with nearly $537,000 spent by the Don Tripp Speaker PAC and the Republican Leadership PAC operated by former House Majority Leader Nate Gentry.
Tripp spent slightly more individual campaign money than Egolf did. Tripp was unopposed, while Egolf was barely opposed – his Republican opponent spent less than $1,300 on the contest.
And while Gentry was the largest individual campaign spender among House leaders, he faced a competitive contest, fighting off a challenge from Democrat Natalie Figueroa. He spent much of his money on mailers and other media in his own race.
Here’s a look at amount spent by the top three House leaders and their political action committees:
Egolf said his campaign fundraising and giving naturally followed his role as House minority leader. Fellow Democrats elected him their leader after the 2014 elections that saw Republicans take control of the House for the first time in 60 years.
“I think it was a natural continuation of my work in the House over the past two years,” Egolf said.
Campaign cash didn’t come up in conversations surrounding new House leadership this year, he said.
“It didn’t come up in the conversations with the people who were seeking the other leadership positions,” Egolf said. “To me, most of the conversations that I had seeking support for the role of speaker talked a lot more about how the House would be run and leadership style.”
Here’s a look at how House leaders and PACs spent their money.
Egolf said the money spent on consulting provided assistance to candidates in terms of media, canvassing and other services.
Tripp, on the other hand, said he preferred to let candidates decide how and where to spend on their campaigns.
“I just prefer to give money to candidates and let them buy into their own campaign,” Tripp said.
“It’s better spent than spending it for them.”
Dems defend the Senate
In the Senate, Wirth, Sanchez and their PACs far outspent Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle and his PAC 22.
But, as with Gentry, the bulk of Sanchez’s spending was on his own campaign. The former majority leader battled both Republican Greg Baca and super PAC Advance New Mexico Now, operated by GOP Gov. Susana Martinez’s political advisers. Baca won with 55 percent of the vote.
Wirth also outspent Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque. Padilla donated $32,050 to other Democratic candidates and PACs, while his New Mexico Sunrise PAC donated $37,600.
Here’s a look at spending by Sanchez, Wirth, Ingle and their PACs:
And here’s a look at how some of that money was spent:
While the Democratic Senate PACs spent some money on consulting, they also donated heavily to candidates and other candidate-operated PACs. Ingle and PAC 22 didn’t spend on consulting.
Wirth said he was surprised by Sanchez’s loss, and didn’t make a connection between his fundraising activities and his election as majority leader.
“It’s an interesting question that I really didn’t think about when I decided to run,” he said. Listen to Sen. Wirth. “Part of being in this position is having long-established relationships with my colleagues, and those really are based on legislation, working together during the time I’ve been in the chamber.”
Wirth’s campaign donated $10,000 to Sanchez, while his PAC, True Blue, gave $10,800, both the maximum allowed. And he noted that super PAC spending like that of Advance will be a target for more disclosure in the upcoming session.
“Certainly I did everything I could to help him win,” Wirth said of Sanchez. “This is why I’ve been so passionate about changing the rules.”
Common Cause Executive Director Viki Harrison said she didn’t see Wirth’s activity as positioning for a leadership role.
“I don’t think Peter ever imagined that Michael would lose his position, especially with all these races that went the other way,” Harrison said.
She noted that lawmakers in safe seats typically play bigger roles in helping out those in contested races.
“When you have an uncontested race, you continue to raise money and try to help out other members,” Harrison said. “Peter has been doing that for years, so has Brian. They’re in Santa Fe. I can’t even remember when the last time they had some general opposition from a Republican.”
“Bottom line is, that’s politics, and money is politics.”
But he noted those leadership roles sometimes make lawmakers targets for the opposition, as Sanchez and Gentry were in 2016.
“If a leader is extremely powerful and someone wants to make a statement and knock him off, that distracts from his ability to be a kingmaker,” Bender said. “It is a two-edged sword, as anything in politics is.”
Here’s a look at donations from legislative leaders and their PACs to other legislative candidates and their PACs:
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