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Free Money!

(Sort of.)

October 2, 2012, 10:00 pm

Here’s a news flash: There are no super PACs in New Mexico.


OK, that’s not exactly true. But a recent investigation by ProPublica, the nonprofit online news organization, found that super PACs spent exactly $0 on TV advertising in New Mexico’s Senate race last month.


ProPublica reporter Justin Elliott calls that figure “striking.” While super PACs—political action committees that are technically unaffiliated with a candidate’s official campaign and can spend unlimited amounts on political advertising—have received a lot of attention nationally, Elliott says, in New Mexico, they’re much less active than another type of group: the “social welfare” nonprofit.


The difference? Super PACs have to reveal their donors. Social welfare groups don’t. 


In New Mexico, where nonprofit social welfare groups accounted for more than half of the total political TV ad buys in August, that means there’s often no way to find out who’s funding the attack ads about Democratic candidate Martin Heinrich’s tax views or Republican Heather Wilson’s environmental record.


“It’s kind of a case in point of this national trend of there being a ton of anonymous money sloshing around, going to races at all levels,” Elliott says.


According to ProPublica’s analysis, Wilson’s campaign spent about $512,000 on TV ads, while conservative groups spent even more—$658,000, to be exact—attacking Heinrich. Similarly, Democratic-leaning nonprofits outspent Heinrich’s campaign, $288,000 to $246,000.


“It’s also a good example of both sides using these outside groups and, in particular, using outside groups funded with this anonymous money,” Elliott notes. “Some Democrats—including Martin Heinrich—will say they’re against this in principle, but they’re benefiting from it. I don’t know if that’s a contradiction, but it at least seems like it’s worth pointing out.”


This information is, for all intents and purposes, newly available: In June, the White House Office of Management and Budget approved a Federal Communications Commission rule that TV stations associated with four major networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) in the nation’s top 50 markets must publish their political ad sales online. Last week, ProPublica launched an online news app that relies on local reporters and gadflies to “free” those files by inspecting the online documents and logging who bought what, for how much.


So far, SFR has helped to free 86 of the 518 files in the New Mexico market, revealing approximately $1.2 million in campaign and outside spending. (Elliott notes that, in order for a file to actually be “freed,” at least two people must corroborate the information it contains.) 


Political spending on TV ads may taper off as Heinrich pulls away—recent polls put him 11-13 percentage points ahead of Wilson—a phenomenon reflected in both parties’ senatorial campaigns’ decisions to pull spending on the Senate race. 


“I think, just because they have limited resources, they’ve sent their money elsewhere,” Elliott says. “I think that could change if the polls start to change.”

To free some files yourself, visit propublica.org/series/free-the-files

 

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