The Ground Game

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This time next week we’ll know who won in hotly contested primary elections unless they’re so close they trigger an automatic recount. In some cases, the winner won’t have to campaign much, if at all, in the November general election – either because they’ll face no opponent or because their districts are comfortably dominated by the voters of one party. In other words, they’ll win the seat outright by winning the primary. 

From an assessment I did early in the election season on legislative races, there are likely to be only four competitive Senate races in the fall, and about 13 in the House. Nearly a third of the Legislature — 36 lawmakers — are without any challengers at all. 

This is why primary elections are consequential.

To sway people who plan to vote in next week’s election, campaigns are bombarding the airwaves and internet with political advertising.  

Such advertising resembles a blunt tool. Many of the people seeing the ads won’t have a say in who advances to the November election, either because they aren’t registered voters or are registered but have no plans to vote next week, or because they are among roughly a quarter of New Mexico’s registered voters who aren’t a member of one of the major political parties running candidates. 

In the last presidential election year – 2020 – about 32% of all registered voterscast a vote in the primary, compared to 69% in the general. In 2022, a non-presidential year, around 20% of all registered voters turned out in the primary, compared to 52% in the general. 

While the public at large sees the political ads, campaigns are taking a more targeted approach with a much smaller group of people: voters registered with one of the two major political parties who have a history of voting. 

To reach these voters, campaigns use political mail, phone calls and text messages, and even people knocking on their door.

Candidates feverishly count how many people agree to vote for them based on feedback from the door-knocking, phone and text messaging campaigns.  They’ll winnow their target lists for the final stretch, working hard to flush out their final voters — because they know that it doesn’t take all that many voters to win a primary election. 

Take the example of Rep. Ambrose Castellano in House District 70 and his challenger, Anita Gonzales, running against each other for the third time. In 2020, Castellano beat Gonzales by 62 votes. He garnered 2,291 ballots to her 2,229. In 2022, Castellano beat Gonzales again, this time by 78 votes. He garnered 2,061 votes to her 1,983. She’s trying for the seat again this year. 

New Mexico campaign reporting requirements don’t force enough detailed information from campaigns to put a dollar figure on the “ground game” – door knocking, phone and text messaging, and mail sent to targeted addresses. 

There are large lump sums – hundreds of thousands – paid to consultants and researchers, some of whom are doing the targeting to make ground games effective, and some of whom are managing volunteer teams to do that mass personal outreach. New Mexico In Depth identified at least $300,000 paid so far in 2024 to consultants, campaign managers, or research services in the reports.

But sometimes one can glean more detailed spending from looking at the campaign expenditure reports.

Former Republican Rep. Larry Scott, who’s trying to win the District 42 Senate seat in southeast New Mexico, has given a company called Ground Game Tactics $18,877 for “door to door walkers.” Our Values PAC (political action committee) gave the same company $33,560 for “GOTV-walkers.” GOTV stands for get out the vote. 

Democratic Rep. Willie Madrid, running for reelection in southern New Mexico’s District 53, has paid $2,651 to three individuals for a series of phone banks since March. 

Candidates and political committees have spent a little more than $15,000 on canvassers. 

At least $654,395 has been spent in 2024 on printing and mailing. 

Piecing together the money spent by campaigns — who it goes to and for what purpose — is an often opaque puzzle. But public campaign reports do give us information to go on. 

In some cases, though, a dark money group comes along that doesn’t file reports. This year, we know of at least one — The New Mexico Project. Run by former gubernatorial candidate Jeff Apodaca, the group’s radio and Facebook ads are easy to identify. How much it’s spent on ground game campaigning remains a mystery. The State Ethics Commission filed suit against the group last week to force disclosure — but I’m not holding out hope that we’ll have that information before next Tuesday. 

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