Democrats dream of expanded majority in State Senate

In the wake of a “progressive wave” in June’s Democratic primaries that swept out of office a group of powerful incumbent Democrats, the state Senate will look very different come January. The wins could help progressive Democrats advance key initiatives, like tapping the Land Grant permanent fund for early childhood programs or getting rid of a criminal abortion law on the books since the 1960s. 

But first, the victorious challengers must win on Tuesday or other closely contested seats largely within the Albuquerque metro area must flip if Democrats want to strengthen their 26-16 advantage in the chamber. 

New Mexico In Depth identified 10 Senate districts in which the difference between registered Democratic and Republican voters is below 4,000. We then charted out candidate spending for each race, as well as the level of in-kind contributions for each candidate. The in-kind contributions reflect spending by party leaders on behalf of the candidates, who then included the value of that spending in their own campaign reports. Four of the districts have been in Democratic hands prior to 2020, while six have been held by Republicans.

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.

Ethics complaint alleges group failed to disclose donors, and suggests connection to prominent lobbyist

Over the course of May and early June this year, a new group called the “Council for a Competitive New Mexico” (CCNM) spent over $130,000 on a media campaign supporting a group of incumbent state senators, most of whom would go on to lose as part of a progressive wave in June’s Democratic primary. The media campaign included several negative mailers and automated phone-calls against candidates opposing the incumbents while the public was left in the dark about who organized the group and who funded the media campaign. 

Now, an ethics complaint filed this week with the Secretary of State’s office alleges that CCNM broke New Mexico’s election code by not disclosing its donors. 

Neri Holguin, campaign manager for two of the candidates who won during the June primary, Siah Correa Hemphill and Pam Cordova, writes that the group may have violated the New Mexico Elections Code by not reporting who paid for the negative advertising and phone calls against those candidates as well as others. 

“It was a deliberate attempt to make it as difficult as possible for voters to know who’s behind these hits on our candidates,” said Holguin in an interview. “They knew the rules enough to file as an independent expenditure (IE) and to list their expenditures, and so why not list contributors?”

“Voters need to know that, and we have no way of knowing that right now,” said Holguin. At the core of Holquin’s complaint is a new state law that triggers certain groups to disclose publicly and quickly who the donors are that paid for their electioneering activities if the costs are larger than a state-prescribed threshold. 

Holguin said she believes CCNM was created by a group of people, including prominent New Mexico lobbyist Vanessa Alarid–whom she mentioned by name in the complaint–that have used similar tactics in recent years to influence elections at the local and state level without disclosing publicly who is funding the activities in a timely fashion.Chevonne Alarid, the president of the nonprofit group, however, said disclosure isn’t necessary  until it files its annual report to the Internal Revenue Service. In addition, she and Vanessa Alarid both denied Vanessa’s involvement.

Despite no corporate money pledges, Democratic federal candidates keep taking it

While every Democrat running for federal office in New Mexico this year pledged to not accept money from corporate political action committees, they still benefit from corporate giving. 

Funneled to their campaigns from intermediary PACs that gather corporate money and then redirect it to candidates for office, the donations shine a light on the complications Democrats face when attempting to distance themselves from corporate special interests while still raising enough money to run winning campaigns. Since the landmark Citizens United vs. FEC Supreme Court ruling in 2010– which opened political campaigns to unrestricted outside spending in elections by corporations, nonprofits, unions, and other organizations—a movement to enact reforms that would limit corporate influence in elections has grown, and found a home within the Democratic Party. One group, called End Citizens United, encourages candidates to pledge not to accept donations from corporate PACs. Federal rules already prohibit candidates from taking donations from corporations directly.

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.