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An expensive campaign season in New Mexico

December 7, 2018

The New Mexico governor’s office does not come cheap.

Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham’s campaign spent more than $9.5 million on her successful bid for the state’s highest office, according to finance reports filed Thursday.

That is nearly twice the $4.9 million spent by Republican candidate Steve Pearce. And it is more than any candidate for governor in the last two elections.

The numbers reflect just how far behind Republicans ended up in what plenty expected would be a difficult year for the GOP in New Mexico.

The large sums of money raised and spent in the race for New Mexico’s top job may fit with a national trend as experts anticipate this election may prove to have been a particularly expensive one in state-level politics.

But while super PACs not officially linked to any particular candidate inundated the airwaves with advertising funded by large donors, this may also prove to be the year donors galvanized over the internet hit back particularly hard with piles of smaller contributions.

Lujan Grisham reported raising $9.7 million in her nearly two-year campaign for governor. The Albuquerque congresswoman drew on a long list of small donors as well as prominent Democrats, labor unions, environmentalists and businesses.

She spent much of it on advertising and an expansive field operation that she began building early on in her marathon two-year run for governor.

Her fundraising did not break the record. Gov. Bill Richardson raised about $13 million when he ran for re-election in 2006.

These numbers do not include the millions more expended by super PACs and independent expenditure groups commonly referred to as “dark money” organizations. In that world, major environmental groups clashed with the energy industry in a battle royale against the backdrop of an oil boom and an outgoing administration that has been friendly to the business behind it.

The top-spending political action committees may well turn out to be conservation-minded CVNM Verde Voters, which reported spending $2.9 million, and the oil industry-backed New Mexico Strong, which reported spending around $2.7 million.

But the numbers reported by individual candidates point to just how much the Democrats were able to mobilize donors. And potentially, how much it may cost to compete for governor in the future.

Pearce reported spending and raising much of his $4.9 million from New Mexico and the oil and gas industry, where he made his own fortune. But with Republicans facing headwinds stirred by a locally unpopular president and high engagement among Democrats, Pearce struggled to match Lujan Grisham. He lost at the ballot box by 14 percentage points.

New Mexico is not alone in having an expensive campaign season, though.

Pete Quist, research director at the National Institute on Money in State Politics, said this year is on pace to be the most expensive yet for state elections.

For one thing, while the organization is still collecting data, Quist said it appears that more candidates than usual ran for state-level offices this year.

Some candidates brought along a lot of their own money, such as J.B. Pritzker, the Democrat who won the race for governor of Illinois and pumped around $171 million into his campaign. That’s a record, Quist said.

In New Mexico, Democratic gubernatorial primary candidate Joe Cervantes loaned his campaign about $2 million. Another primary contender, Jeff Apodaca, loaned his campaign about $450,000.

But Quist added that small donors also appear to have played a big role in this election.

By turning the election in part into a referendum on President Donald Trump, Democrats were able to galvanize grassroots supporters. Other candidates were particularly adept at turning social media such as Facebook and a steady stream of email appeals into a means of reaching out directly to small-dollar donors.

The Democratic onslaught, which led to the party expanding its margin in the state House of Representatives and winning every statewide race as well as all congressional seats, put Republicans on defense. That, in turn, led to some very pricey races where Republicans once did not face such heavy — or well-funded — competition.

ActBlue, which processes online donations for many Democratic campaigns, said 222,424 contributors used its website to donate $13.5 million to 123 federal and state candidates in New Mexico this election cycle.

In federal races, incumbent Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich spent around $8 million in his re-election bid while Republican Mick Rich spent around $900,000 and Libertarian Gary Johnson spent less than half of that.

In the race for the 2nd Congressional District, in Southern New Mexico, Democrat Xochitl Torres Small spent about $4.4 million to flip the area from red to blue and edge out Republican Yvette Herrell, who spent about $1.2 million.

At the very local level, on state Rep. David Adkins of Albuquerque’s West Side spent about $53,000 in 2016, winning re-election by just a handful of votes. This year, as a Democratic wave crested over the state’s biggest city, his campaign spent nearly $153,000 only to lose the seat. His challenger, Joy Garratt, spent a little over $119,500.

Across town, Democrat Melanie Stansbury spent about $160,000 to unseat Republican Rep. Jimmie Hall, who spent about half as much.

In some other statewide races, Democrats far outspent their GOP opponents.

In the state auditor’s race, Democrat Brian Colón spent $333,560 compared with appointed Republican incumbent Wayne Johnson, who spent just over $200,000.

And in the race for secretary of state, which was never considered competitive this year, incumbent Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver spent a little over $420,900, more than four times the amount spent by Republican Gavin Clarkson.

Staff writer Steve Terrell contributed to this report.

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