Take a dive in the campaign finance pool for the New Mexico House of Representatives. The water is murky. Rules, where they exist, don’t always apply.
This year, legislative candidates from both major political parties have already amassed more than $3.5 million and continue to make a mockery of the very campaign finance limits some of them helped pass five years ago. New data shows unprecedented amounts of cash from special interests flowing into contests for two-year seats in the lower chamber of what New Mexico's founders established as a "citizen's legislature" in 1912.
Now House candidates who formerly ran in small-town races with shoestring budgets are skirting campaign finance limits by creating pools of cash collected from multiple political action committees and dispersing that cash toward the same purpose: control of the 70-member chamber by their respective parties.
Case-in-point: SFR obtained a contract that Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, has been presenting to GOP House candidates. The House minority whip promises $10,000 in direct support to a candidate from a combination of three separate PACs—provided the candidate meets certain obligations.
"He is doing some fancy dancing," former state Sen. Dede Feldman says of Gentry's contract.
Yet Feldman and other campaign finance reformers say Gentry's dance is completely legal.
Feldman, an Albuquerque Democrat, was instrumental in the passage of 2009 campaign-finance legislation. Heralded as a landmark law aimed at curtailing undue influence on New Mexico elections by big donors, it now limits contributions made directly to candidates to $10,400 each election year.
Still, following the law's passage, more money has flowed to legislative candidates. In the 2012 general election, the first test of those limits, 145 state House candidates raised a collective $5.2 million, according to data compiled by the Secretary of State's Office. That's 33 percent more than the $3.8 million that 137 House candidates raised in 2010—before the limits were in effect.
This year's race for the House is more heated, with Democrats holding a slim four-seat majority and Republicans angling to take it over for the first time since Dwight Eisenhower was president. As of Sept. 8, the 137 candidates running for seats in New Mexico's House have nearly matched the 2010 figure with two months before Election Day.
Pooling cash collected from multiple PACs has another advantage for candidates. It allows them to get around federal rules that only limit fundraising if a group's spending is coordinated with a candidate's campaign.
New Mexico's campaign contribution limits kicked in just after a 2010 US Supreme Court ruling that freed corporations and other groups like unions to spend unlimited amounts in elections.
Monday, US senators moved forward a constitutional amendment co-sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, that would give states more authority to regulate election money.
But Congress appears unlikely to adopt the amendment, and for now the court's logic is the law of the land: A government can limit campaign contributions to prevent bribery or its appearance, but a candidate cannot be bribed if he or she doesn't know how that money will be spent in an election. Hence the rise of "super PACs" and nonprofits on the campaign finance landscape that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash in elections—so long as there's no official coordination on spending. But Gentry, who didn't respond to requests for comment, and his colleagues need not worry about coordination with their scheme of pooling contributions by establishing multiple PACs that each raise and spend within campaign finance limits.
While state law caps what single contributors can give a particular candidate, laws don't limit the number of PACs to which they can donate or how much they give overall.
Gentry's campaign committee, the Republican Leadership PAC and NM Future PAC have all received contributions from similar donors. The Washington DC-based GOPAC Future Election Fund, for instance, has already given $28,400 to the latter two of Gentry's committees and to Republican candidates running tight statehouse races—candidates who are also getting contributions from Gentry's PACs. This funneling of money helps shield the original source of campaign contributions.
New Mexico Democrats—the ones professing to be opposed to the influence of big-money in politics—are playing the same ballgame. They're arguably winning it, actually: Democratic candidates vying for New Mexico's House have collected just north of $2 million for the 2014 elections—roughly $586,000 more than their Republican opponents. A big chunk of that money comes from special interests like big labor and trial lawyers, goes to PACs controlled by House Speaker Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, and lands in the campaign coffers of candidates in contested districts, like that of Matthew McQueen, a Santa Fe County Democrat.
Former Sen. Feldman is critical of even her own party for violating the spirit of the reforms she helped pass into law, and recalls the days when campaigns used volunteers instead of paid political consultants. She argues Gentry's contract might be a good idea; one stipulation requires a candidate to knock on a certain number of doors, an art that in Feldman's mind has been eroded by advertising.
Another provision requires a candidate to live in the district where they're running—or face a "penalty of $50,000, to Gentry." SFR obtained an unsigned version of the proposal, and it's unclear how many candidates have signed it. Some candidates avoided it, and maybe for good reason: The contract stipulates that a candidate must comply with its terms unless there are unforeseen circumstances, family emergencies, injuries and "acts of God."
"This," Feldman says of the changing campaign finance landscape, "is what God hath wrought."