After elections come more elections.
On Saturday—just over a month after the Nov. 6 election—the Republican Party of New Mexico selected its new figurehead: a tall, deep-voiced Lincoln County party chairman who candidly urged his fellow partisans to do some “soul searching.”
“We have permitted our conservative partnerships to fall apart, due in most part to self-interest, infighting and, to some degree, neglect,” John Billingsley, 67, told the crowd. “We must care about the good of the party as a whole. We will fail in our future endeavors if we don’t care about each other.”
Billingsley’s comments hint at the crisis within the party. Despite its firm hold on the governor’s seat and the high-dollar, sometimes high-handed role of conservative super PACs in the recent election, many in the party say it’s in danger of losing ground.
Earlier this year, Republicans hoped to win control of the state House of Representatives and make a dent in the Democrat-controlled Senate. With super PACs freed from state campaign contribution limits, they saw the potential to funnel millions into state and local races, as did Democrats.
The spending happened, but the results didn’t. Republicans lost ground in the House and did poorly in national races. On top of that, unprecedented spending by conservative super PACs created a profound rift among New Mexico Republicans. Now, the party faces a new question: Can it recover its dominance of state races—or are official party committees an anachronism in the age of super PACs?
Billingsley’s election, with nearly 70 percent of the party vote, was a litmus test. He speaks compellingly of the need for change; he’s penned op-eds lamenting the top-down nature of campaigns that fail to incorporate “direct personal engagement” with voters.
Many in the old guard of the Democratic and Republican parties are still trying to adjust to the new normal of outside groups spending unlimited cash in campaigns. Even Republicans, who have a legislative history of opposing campaign finance restrictions, are looking for more transparency from super PACs. Although super PACs operating in the state must disclose their donors, disclosure standards do not always answer questions about who’s giving, why they’re giving and where the money goes.
“Unfortunately, where all the parties are becoming transparent—or need to be transparent—the PACs are not,” Billingsley tells SFR. “And that’s not always good for the public.”
This year, according to campaign finance data filed with the New Mexico Secretary of State’s office, Reform New Mexico Now, a super PAC run by top Gov. Susana Martinez adviser Jay McCleskey, raised more than any other political action committee, flooding the state with $2.4 million. The identities of its contributors—including oil companies and wealthy, out-of-state businessmen—are listed on campaign finance reports. But unlike the Republican Party, Reform doesn’t hold elections or publish an official platform. Like many super PACs around the country, it is fast, lithe—it formed a week before the primary and may dissolve now that the election is over—and able to raise unlimited funds as long as it remains independent of candidates and official campaigns.
In essence, all it takes to influence a race is one well-connected guy who can raise a few hundred thousand dollars. In the online campaign finance system maintained by the New Mexico Secretary of State, there’s no way to tell how a super PAC spends that money without combing through each individual report—and no verification that they’re real companies [news, June 20: “Black Drops”].
All of this can lead to a crisis of confidence in candidates, campaigns and the electoral process.
“I think that’s what troubles most people: the lack of transparency,” Jamie Estrada, a former US Commerce Department official under George W Bush, tells SFR. Reform, he says, confused some Republicans by undermining certain GOP candidates rather than supporting them.
Estrada says that, if Billingsley lives up to his agenda, the state Republican Party can forge more long-term relationships and work on grassroots development.
But old-fashioned outreach may be no match for super PACs’ fundraising abilities. In 2010, political action committees controlled by party officials were the top PAC spenders, according to SFR’s analysis. The Republican Campaign Committee of New Mexico spent $1.5 million—the second-most of any PAC that year, after the Republican Governor’s Association of New Mexico 2010 PAC, which spent $1.7 million. (The Democratic Party of New Mexico’s political committee and the Democratic Governor’s Association came in third and fourth.)
Yet just two years later, the system has been upended. This year, two super PACs—Reform and the liberal Patriot Majority New Mexico—topped PAC spending, pouring $2.4 million and $1.3 million into the state, respectively. The RCCNM, by contrast, spent roughly $252,000—a mere fraction of what it did in 2010. The Democratic Party also significantly scaled back its campaign spending.
Martin Suazo, a Democratic Party vice-chairman for the 3rd Congressional District, says the state Democratic Party didn’t do a lot for the presidential election this year because it doesn’t have the super PACs’ ability to “raise mega dollars.”
“I most definitely think that super PACs right now and their ability to fundraise are kicking us, you know, all over the place,” he says.
As a result, “both parties have been marginalized,” says Janice Arnold-Jones, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District. “So what this last election showed…is that entities can come in, in the name of a party, literally, and say, ‘We’re the Democratic Party,’ ‘We’re the Republican Party’—and use the name, but in fact have no stake in the people that that party represents. I think that’s a mistake. I think that’s a real mistake.”
Arnold-Jones voted for campaign finance limits as a state lawmaker. In 2009, the Legislature successfully passed contribution limits for candidates, parties and super PACs. Currently, however, those limits are being considered by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver—after New Mexico Republicans sought to dismantle them.
For now, it seems that super PACs will continue to have a role in campaigns. Hours after being nominated, even Billingsley struck a conciliatory tone.
“A lot of people have construed the fact that I’m anti-Jay McCleskey simply because I have said that the party needs to be autonomous...,” he told SFR after being elected party chairman. “I’m actually not anti-Jay McCleskey. I’m not anti-strategist at all. They have a very positive aspect in our political arena, and that aspect in their role is to get their candidates elected. And they will, at all times, do anything and everything. Sometimes they get a little overzealous.”
But such zeal may also define the party’s way forward.
“I think what we’re learning is that the messenger is just as important as the message,” Estrada says. “[Reform] upset a lot of people. And I think that’s why people are trying to rebel against this a little bit and say, ‘You know what? We need a really strong Republican Party.’”