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Elections 2010: An expensive slurry of repeated slams

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By Sherry Robinson

On her retirement, a friend dedicated herself to public service and has since served on boards and run for office a few times. In the recent election, she lost her race for county commission.
“My opponent spent $95,000. $95,000! For county commission! I raised $6,000 from my savings and by asking everyone I knew for money,” she said.
For the lesser offices, she wonders, how does an ordinary person finance a campaign? Apparently all that cash flowing into races at the top of the ticket also flowed downhill to the well connected.
It’s disturbing that in a time when entire programs will live or die on $1 million or less, Susana Martinez spent $5.76 million and Diane Denish spent $7.03 million on the primary and general elections for governor, and congressional candidates altogether spent nearly $10 million. Hector Balderas dropped upwards of $180,000 to remain state auditor, far outdistancing his opponent; the treasurer’s race was also lopsided, with James Lewis spending more than $24,000 to his opponent’s $1,300 (reported a week before Election Day).
In the attorney general’s contest, Gary King spent some $484,000; Matt Chandler, $283,000.
What did these barrels of money buy? Advertising. But instead of allowing us to get to know the candidates or teaching us about their positions, the campaigns churned out a flood of distasteful mailers and TV commercials that made us keep our fingers near the mute button on the remote. Oddly, only Diane Denish, who lost the nastiest race, seemed remorseful. On election night, she said: “We are in an era of great cynicism. Sound bites and catch phrases without a whole lot of substance behind any of it. The competition of ideas has lost out to the competition of gotcha. We are all – me included – guilty of playing along with it.
“I just hope in the future we can break the cycle of attack-driven politics and have real conversations about what’s important – jobs, economic security, clean air and water, making sure kids have health care and a good education.”
The winners had no regrets. Their trash ads worked.
Campaigns would have been a lot less trashy without the flow of dough from outside groups, including national political party committees. In the 2nd Congressional District, $1.6 million (including $768,000 from the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund) was spent to blast Steve Pearce, about $1 million (half from the National Republican Congressional Committee) to tar Harry Teague, according to the watchdog Sunlight Foundation. Supporting messages got spare change of $200,000. The 1st District race drew $3.8 million from outsiders, about two-thirds of it (including nearly $1 million from the American Action Network, $549,000 from the NRCC, and $417,000 from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) to pound Democratic incumbent Martin Heinrich and the rest, nearly all from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, to bash Republican challenger John Barela. Just $400,000 went for support.
Despite this slurry of slams, Heinrich and Pearce won. We repeatedly were assured that this spending orgy wouldn’t happen again because a state law passed in 2009, to take effect conveniently after this election, caps individual, businesses or political action committees contributions at $5,000 per election. Federal restrictions cap contributions from private donors to congressional candidates at $2,300 per election.
But court cases early this year have pretty much undermined any perceived reforms. The U.S. Supreme Court removed limits on political advocacy by corporations or unions; in two other cases, one by King targeting liberal groups, decisions supported so-called educational nonprofits’ right to not reveal their funding sources. So it’s now easy for groups with important-sounding names to camouflage their funding or for corporations or unions to campaign for or against candidates.
We still have the biggest elections money can buy. But not the best.

Sherry Robinson
NM News Services