In battle for Legislature, lawmakers are big givers
State legislators in mostly safe seats and their political action committees have funneled more than $1.3 million to candidates in competitive races.
That's one-fifth of the $6.4 million raised by legislative candidates from 2015 through July 2 as Democrats and Republicans battle over control of the state House and Senate.
Such giving, which might resemble money laundering to some, is legal under New Mexico’s campaign finance laws. It’s typical in other states around the nation, too.
But being legal doesn’t mean it’s easy to track.
Donors may give multiple times to various candidates and their PACs, which then send the cash to key races. That allows donors to get around state contribution limits, some say.
“It’s a legal shell game," Viki Harrison, executive director for Common Cause New Mexico said. “It makes it very difficult to figure out who is funding whose campaign."
The increase in money flowing from candidate to candidate appears to exceed similar spending in prior elections, in part because of a proliferation in recent years of political action committees operated by rank-and-file lawmakers.
Previously, legislative leaders often were the only lawmakers to spread cash around through leadership PACs. These days, the lawmakers are doling money out of their own campaign coffers as well as from PACs they control.
New Mexico’s Republican legislators are playing the game more successfully than their Democratic competitors, accounting for 59 percent of the money, according to an analysis by NMID. The GOP is trying to retain the House majority they won in 2014 for the first time in 60 years and take over the Senate, too.
New Mexico In Depth analyzed House and Senate candidate contribution reports from 2015 through the final 2016 primary filing. Contributor names were standardized to identify incumbent lawmakers who donated to other incumbents, as well as challengers and candidates running in open seats.
Donations to failed primary candidates aren’t included, nor were candidate contributions to themselves.
NMID also examined contributions lawmakers received from 31 PACs in which incumbent legislators or Gov. Susana Martinez are principals, including leadership PACs.
Super PACs, which take unlimited contributions, or other PACs that make independent expenditures while avoiding candidate coordination, were excluded from the analysis.
The $1.3 million considerably exceeds what New Mexico lawmakers have given to other lawmakers in a each of the last three elections, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
And with the first general election reports due Monday, the numbers are certain to grow.
Here’s how it works.
Donors — lobbyists, corporations, unions, interest groups and individuals — give donations, often the maximum, to candidates and to candidate-controlled political action committees.
Individual donors may give $2,500 for the primary election and $2,500 for the general election to candidates, and up to $10,800 to political action committees. PACs may give $5,400 to candidates for both the primary and general election for a total of $10,800.
The candidate-operated PACs and candidates in safe seats then donate to candidates in the most competitive districts.
They are supplemented by non-candidate-related donors.
The biggest givers to legislative candidates and PACs thus far are Devon Energy, an Oklahoma oil company, at $220,700, and the Committee on Individual Responsibility, which represents New Mexico trial lawyers, at $175,500. Devon typically gives to Republicans, while COIR typically gives to Democrats.
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who is a recipient of such giving, said it makes it tough for the public to track, calling it “this labyrinth that someone has to pursue before they figure out where the money’s coming from.”
Ivey-Soto co-sponsored a bill last session aimed at improving reporting transparency.
The current system emerged, in part, as a response to the 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. That ruling allowed contributors to give unlimited donations to super PACS that spend money independently of candidates or political parties. That spending can overwhelm candidates the groups oppose because of the amount of money they can spend.
That means candidates in contested races need to find different ways to raise money.
“I think we need to ask ourselves, are we really serious about disclosure?” asked Ivey-Soto. “And if we’re really serious about disclosure, then we need to allow candidates the ability to raise the funds necessary to compete against these independent expenditure groups but disclose where that money is coming from."
Some lawmakers support the idea of repealing a state law limiting what individuals and companies may give to candidates to combat the huge sums outside PACs spend in races.
Why are lawmakers in safe seats raising money and giving it over to those in competitive seats?
Former GOP state Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones has a theory.
“Can you say consolidation of power?" Arnold-Jones asked.
Indeed, many of the top givers are legislative leaders — led by GOP House Speaker Don Tripp, of Socorro, who has spread around more than $225,000 to Republican candidates and their PACS.
It is a responsibility of legislative leaders to help their peers, Tripp said.
“Part of my job is to try to assist members of my caucus in any way I can to help them get their message out," Tripp said.
On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Brian Egolf and two PACs he operates lead the way with nearly $137,000 donated to other candidates and PACs.
“It’s all part of the effort to win the House," said the Santa Fe Democrat.
Arnold-Jones said legislative leaders spread their money around for another reason, too: To hold on to their leadership positions. She said lawmakers will remember who helped them win election when leadership is selected.
“It happens on both sides,” she said.
Tripp attributes the increased giving to escalating costs of running for office.
“To compete you have to actually compete. It’s tit for tat,” he said.
Egolf agreed on that point, but noted his GOP counterparts have a fundraising advantage so far.
“Democrats are working hard to keep pace with the enormous amounts of out-of-state corporate dollars flowing into the accounts aligned with Republicans in the House," he said.
The variety of political action committees operated by individual or groups of lawmakers is relatively new, said Arnold-Jones and former Democratic state Sen. Dede Feldman.
“It had always been the case that lobbyists would give money to people who didn’t have opposition … then those recipients would pass the money on to people they thought needed it,” Feldman said. “That’s new, the candidates having PACs and not just their campaign account."
Some of those groups — Tripp’s speaker PAC, the House Democratic Campaign Committee, the NM Senate Leadership Fund — are standard leadership PACs.
But others are operated by individual lawmakers.
Examining the top beneficiaries of incumbent lawmakers’ largess gives a sense of which seats are considered key to the battle over the House and Senate.
Here’s a look at some of those top races:
House District 23, Albuquerque/Corrales: Incumbent GOP Rep. Paul Pacheco is fighting off a challenge from Democrat Daymon Ely. Pacheco has received more than $50,000 from Republican lawmakers, while Ely has received nearly $27,000 from Democrats.
House District 15, Albuquerque: Republican Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes is trying to retain the seat she took from Democrats two years ago, and her peers have donated nearly $50,000 to her efforts. Her opponent, Democrat Ane Romero, has received nearly $22,000 from incumbent lawmakers and their PACs.
House District 4, Navajo Country/Northwestern New Mexico: GOP Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage brings nearly $43,000 from her Republican peers to the race against Democrat GloJean Todacheene, who has about $23,000 from Democratic lawmakers.
House District 37, Las Cruces: Republican Rep. Terry McMillan has received $40,000 to fight a challenge from Democrat Joanne Ferrary, who’s received nearly $24,000 from Democratic legislators and their PACs.
Senate District 29, Belen: Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez can probably attribute his leadership role to the nearly $38,000 he’s received from other lawmakers. And Republicans, particularly Gov. Susana Martinez, would like to see Gregory Baca unseat Sanchez, though they’ve only donated about $19,000 to Baca thus far. Sanchez, on the other hand, has passed along about $10,000 to other lawmakers from his campaign account.
House District 39, Las Cruces and Silver City: It’s the third matchup between incumbent GOP Rep. John Zimmerman and former Democratic Rep. Rodolpho Martinez. Martinez won in 2012, but Zimmerman took the seat in 2014. Zimmerman’s colleagues have donated about $36,000 to his campaign, while Martinez has received about $28,000 from fellow Democrats.
House District 38, Truth or Consequences: Republican Rebecca Dow reported nearly $35,000 from GOP legislative interests as she takes on Democrat Mary Hotvedt, who won a contested primary. Democrats may start chipping in to Hotvedt’s efforts to win the seat vacated by former GOP Rep. Dianne Hamilton.
Senate District 9, Albuquerque: Democratic Sen. John Sapien faces a tough challenge from Diego Espinoza. Sapien’s Democratic peers have kicked in nearly $31,000 to his campaign, compared with Espinoza’s $30,000 from GOP PACs and lawmakers.
Senate District 15, Albuquerque: Democrat Ivey-Soto is targeted by Republicans, who hope nominee Eric Burton can take the seat away. But Ivey-Soto has nearly $33,000 from his peers in his campaign accounts, compared with more than $18,000 Burton has received from the GOP.
House District 24, Albuquerque: Republican lawmakers have donated nearly $32,000 to Christina Hall, hoping she can take the seat vacated by GOP Rep. Conrad James. Democrats have donated more than $23,000 to Elizabeth Thomson’s campaign. Thomson lost the seat to James in 2014.
House District 32, Deming: Vicki Chavez was one of the few candidates in a contested primary to receive support from incumbent lawmakers. She got nearly $31,000 from legislative PACs and legislators, who typically refrain from getting involved in intra-party squabbles. But their help — and independentspending from super PAC Advance New Mexico Now — apparently allowed her to win her race by 16 votes. Now, she faces Democratic nominee Candie Sweetser to replace retiring Rep. Dona Irwin, a Democrat. Sweetser has received less than $5,000 from Democratic legislators, but that could change.
House District 7, Belen/Los Lunas: GOP Rep. Kelly Fajardo faces Democrat Arturo Fierro. She’s received nearly $30,000 from other Republican lawmakers, to Fierro’s $18,000 from Democrats.
Senate District 39, rural Santa Fe: Gov. Martinez appointed Republican Ted Barela to fill the term of Democratic Sen. Phil Griego, who resigned in 2015 after an ethics investigation. The GOP has donated more than $28,000 to Barela’s campaign, hoping to retain the seat. But expect Democrats to begin helping out Santa Fe County Commissioner Liz Stefanics, who won a four-way primary to challenge Barela in what is considered a Democratic-leaning district.
House District 43, Los Alamos: Democratic Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard faces a challenge from Republican Sharon Stover, but Garcia Richard has an advantage in fundraising from legislative friends of $26,000 to Stover’s $19,500.
Senate District 36, Las Cruces: GOP Sen. Lee Cotter faces a challenge from outgoing Democratic Rep. Jeff Steinborn. Republican lawmakers have donated $24,000 to Cotter’s coffers. But Steinborn received only about $6,000 because he faced a competitive primary. That amount will likely skyrocket by the next filing date.
Senate District 37, Las Cruces: Republican Cecelia Levatino is challenging Democratic Sen. Bill Soules, though Democrats have donated nearly $24,000 to Soules compared with Levatino’s $14,500 from GOP legislative sources.
House District 36, Las Cruces: Democrat Nate Small is challenging Republican Rep. Andy Nunez, with nearly $24,000 from Democratic lawmakers going to Small compared with just under $20,000 for Nunez from GOP peers.