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PACs pour money into legislative races

Associated Press Modified: November 1, 2012 at 7:31 pm •  Published: November 1, 2012

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Political groups free from campaign finance restrictions are pouring millions of dollars into New Mexico's legislative races that will determine whether Democrats hang on to their majorities in the House and Senate.

A PAC with ties to Republican Gov. Susana Martinez on Thursday reported spending $1.4 million on House and Senate races last month, with $4 of every $5 going for advertising and mailings.

That was matched by a Democratic-leaning group called Patriot Majority New Mexico, which spent $1.3 million during October. More than three-fourths of that went for mailings and ads.

Reform New Mexico Now, which was formed by the governor's supporters, reported raising $1.6 million last month and is targeting about two dozen legislative races. Its top donor was a national GOP group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, which contributed $715,000. Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Las Vegas Sands casino empire, gave $200,000. Adelson and his wife are leading donors to political groups backing GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Two oil and natural gas companies, Occidental Petroleum and Devon Energy Production, each gave $100,000.

"We are committed to leveling the playing field for reform-minded legislative candidates by countering the out-of-state leftwing special interest groups who spent more than $2 million in just the last few weeks," Jay McCleskey, the governor's political strategist who runs the PAC, said in a statement.

His tally for Democratic groups covered a host of PACs ranging from Patriot Majority to committees formed by Democratic lawmakers.

Patriot Majority raised $619,500 during October, with most of that from labor unions. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees contributed $200,000, a political committee of the American Federation of Teachers gave $150,000 and a PAC of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters contributed $180,000.

Patriot Majority is backing about 20 House and Senate candidates, said Craig Varoga, the PAC's president and a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic strategist.

"The pro-jobs campaign of Patriot Majority New Mexico and our allies includes radio, TV, online communications, direct mail and an active grassroots campaign, door-to-door canvassing, paid phones and get-out-the-vote activities," Varoga said in a statement.

So-called super PACs like Patriot Majority and Reform New Mexico Now can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in campaigns because of federal court rulings, but the groups must operate separately from candidates.

Verde Voters PAC, which was formed by an environmental group, spent $272,908 last month and about three-fourths of that went for mailings and television advertising.

The PAC has targeted nine legislative races, according to Sandy Buffett, executive director of Conservation Voters New Mexico.

"These are the races where we have great environmental champions running, either incumbents or challengers," said Buffett.

Verde Votes spent nearly $104,000 on television advertising against a Republican candidate trying to oust one of the Senate's top Democratic leaders, Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, of Belen.

Reform New Mexico Now has been running TV ads against Sanchez as well as Senate President Tim Jennings, a Roswell Democrat.

Jennings has spent $339,000 on his re-election since last year, about five times more than his GOP challenger, and Sanchez has outspent his GOP opponent nearly 4-to-1 so far.

The League of Conservation Voters in Washington, D.C. contributed $100,000 to Verde Voters PAC and $48,000 came from the Center for Civic Action, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit group.

A liberal-leaning PAC called the Justice League spent $122,342, with more than more than two-thirds of that for mailings. PAC treasurer Eli Lee said the group was supporting Democrats in five legislative races. The Center for Civic Action was its top contributor, giving $134,000.

Legislative leaders also dumped money into races as Election Day neared. The PACs affiliated with House and Senate leaders must comply with state campaign finance restrictions, which limit how much they can receive from donors. However, the committees can directly contribute to candidates and coordinate their spending with a candidate's campaign.

A PAC operated by House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, D-Grants, gave nearly $71,000 in October to Democratic House candidates, political groups that aid candidates and to Democratic Party organizations.

A PAC affiliated with House GOP Leader Tom Taylor of Farmington contributed about $51,000 to 15 Republican House candidates.

Democrats hold a narrow 36-33 edge in the House, which also has one independent. Republicans hope they can pick up enough seats to have a majority for the first time in nearly 60 years. In the Senate, Democrats hold a 24-18 majority.

Thursday was the deadline for candidates and political committees to file state campaign finance reports showing fundraising from Oct. 2-Oct. 31.


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