The coronavirus pandemic has impacted every aspect of normalcy, and the 2020 elections are no exception to the uncertainty of the times. Prior to the spread of COVID-19, there was significant buzz around the Democratic presidential primary election and the effect it would have on state elections. By the time filing day came around in New Mexico on March 10, 2020, the state was just two days away from identifying its first positive cases.
The state continues to see new cases every day and has developed an interactive portal to track the spread. Last week, New Mexico’s primary election in June came into the spotlight with campaign financing reports due and oral arguments before the state supreme court.
Primary Voting and the Public Health Emergency
On March 30, 2020, a petition was filed with the New Mexico Supreme Court on behalf of 27 of the 33 county clerks and the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office. The petitioners requested the high court authorize the State to hold a mail-in primary election given the public health emergency brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. The Court received opposition to this petition from the Republican Party of New Mexico, the remaining six county clerks, and 31 Republican lawmakers. The Court set the matter for oral argument on April 14, 2020, and also requested briefs from the Office of the Governor, the Legislature, the Libertarian Party of New Mexico and the League of Women Voters. Lastly, the Court requested that the parties address whether the Legislature could convene to address the concerns raised by the petitioners.
On April 14, 2020, the Supreme Court held virtual oral arguments – an unprecedented occurrence. Two retired Supreme Court Justices, Edward Chavez and Richard Bosson, were designated to hear the arguments because Justices Shannon Bacon and David Thomson recused themselves as they are on the 2020 election ballot. The petitioners were represented by attorney and State Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto (D-Albuquerque), who argued that a safe and legal primary election could not be conducted, and that the Court had the authority to authorize the Secretary of State’s Office to conduct an election by mail-in ballot. The respondents argued that the Court did not have that authority as New Mexico’s election laws required that residents “apply” for an absentee ballot if they were not going to vote in person. The Legislature informed the Court that a virtual session could not be conducted because Senate and House rules did not permit such a meeting. Additionally, the general counsel for Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham argued that a special session could not be called given the time frame before the June primary and the likelihood of social distancing orders being extended statewide.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that it did not have the authority to change New Mexico law to allow the Secretary of State’s Office to mail a ballot to all registered voters. Instead, the Supreme Court ordered that an application for an absentee ballot be mailed to all registered voters and that early and election day in-person voting be conducted in accordance with social distancing orders in place at those times.
First Primary Campaign Financing Reports
The first round of primary campaign finance reporting was due on April 13, 2020. Although filing day was in March, many incumbents and challengers declared their candidacies in 2019. Candidates and political committees were required to report contributions received and expenditures made from October 2019 to the first week of April 2020.
All 112 legislative seats are up for reelection in 2020, and many have primary opponents. The campaign finance laws were changed in 2019 and contribution limitations were increased. Legislative races were slated to see unprecedented amounts of money before the economic impacts of COVID-19 halted traditional fundraising efforts. As evidenced by the information below, however, many candidates were able to raise significant amounts before the pandemic and in light of the fundraising prohibition during the 2020 Legislative Session.
Candidates for the New Mexico House of Representatives
Historically, and before the state law change, state House races raised between $50,000 and $70,000 in an entire election cycle. This year, the New Mexico House of Representatives has had several candidates raising over $30,000. Speaker Brian Egolf (D-Santa Fe) raised more than twice that of Minority Floor Leader James Townsend (R-Artesia). The second-highest fundraiser in the House was Rep. Patricia Lundstrom (D-Gallup), who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee and co-chairs the Legislative Finance Committee.
Interestingly, two candidates seeking election to open seats raised significant sums. Jessica Velasquez is the Democratic candidate for District 22 in Albuquerque and raised over $50,000. The seat will be vacated by Rep. Gregg Schmedes (R-Tijeras), who has filed to challenge current District 19 Sen. James White (R-Albuquerque) in the Republican primary. Velasquez will face Republican Stefani Lord in the general election. Another challenger in an open race is Meredith Dixon, who seeks to fill the open seat vacated by current Rep. Abbas Akhil (D-Albuquerque) in District 20, who said he would not seek reelection. Dixon raised a little over $47,000 and is facing a primary opponent. The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican candidate Michael Hendricks who has previously sought the Republican nomination for Attorney General.
Although the Democrats significantly increased their majority in the House of Representatives in 2018, the eight open seats coupled with the dozen swing districts make the political control of the chamber up for grabs and the State house is considered a battleground chamber. It is anticipated that battleground chambers have greater potential for major political shifts. Battleground chambers are also subject to influence from national political trends.
The chart below shows current campaign fundraising numbers for the open seats in the New Mexico House of Representatives.
Of the eight open seats, three are being vacated by Republicans and five are currently being held by Democrats. As shown, District 45, currently held by Rep. Jim Trujillo (D-Santa Fe) is guaranteed to go to a Democrat and District 3, currently held by Rep. Paul Bandy (R-Farmington) is guaranteed to go to a Republican along with District 61 currently held by Rep. David Gallegos (R-Eunice).
Following the last presidential and midterm elections, a dozen House districts could be identified as swing districts. The Democrats hold a majority of 46 to 24, so Republicans could take control of the House if they retained their seats and gained 12. The chart to the left shows the fundraising numbers in the swing districts.
Like the open seats, some races in swing districts are likely already decided. Although incumbent Reps. Elizabeth Thomson (D-Albuquerque), Candie Sweetser (D-Deming), and Rebecca Dow (R-Truth or Consequences) show that a challenger has filed to contest them, those challengers had not reported raising any funds by the first primary report deadline.
While there is an opportunity for a political shift in the House of Representatives based on the data in open and swing seats, New Mexico is historically a state that trends blue, especially in years with presidential elections. Given the circumstances new candidates and challengers are facing due to social distancing guidelines and orders, it is yet to be seen how influential newcomers can be. However, with voter turnout to also likely break with past trends, there is enough uncertainty to put a check on another blue wave.
Candidates for the New Mexico Senate
Blue wave or not, the New Mexico Senate is not likely to switch partisan control anytime soon. The Democrats hold a firm majority of 26 to 16. However, the depth of the shade of blue of the Senate will be determined after the June Primary. As with national politics, moderate or just left of center Democrats are being challenged by more progressive candidates. This is specifically the case in the Senate, where five Democrats have been labeled “corporate Democrats” by progressive groups. In addition to those with that label, there are a couple other incumbents who are also facing progressive challengers such as Sen. Richard Martinez (D-Alcalde) and Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces).
In addition to the blue wave of 2018, New Mexico also saw a surge of women elected to office. However, the New Mexico Senate Chamber has uniquely faced criticism for its low number of women members. With that in mind, of the seven races with “targeted” Senate Democrats, five of those races have a female challenger facing a male incumbent. The chart below shows fundraising figures for those certain primary races.
Several of these incumbents and their challengers are on the list of top Senate fundraisers, further demonstrating the stakes of these races. In the primary races for District 28 and 30, both the incumbent and the challenger raised significant amounts. Given the changes to campaign practices because of the coronavirus, fundraising is likely to decrease in the next few reports. It will be up to the candidates and their campaigns to navigate how to best use what money they have raised thus far to their respectful advantages.
The Senate tends to see fewer close races than in the House of Representatives, and even fewer open seats. However, there are two open seats this year. The Minority Whip, Sen. William Payne (R-Albuquerque) is retiring and six candidates have filed to run – four Democrats and two Republicans – for the District 20 seat. Additionally, Sen. John Sapien (D-Corrales) is also not seeking reelection and seven candidates have filed to run – Four Democrats and three Republicans – for the District 9 seat.
This will be the first election for Sens. Gabriel Ramos (D-Silver City), Shannon Pinto (D-Tohatchi), Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales (D-Taos), and Gregg Fulfer (R-Jal). These senators, except Sen. Fulfer were all appointed by Gov. Lujan Grisham during her first term.
The chart above shows the top 20 Senate candidates who raised the most money during the last reporting period. The figures do not include loans made by candidates to their campaigns. Interestingly, a contest that saw significant fundraising, though not a primary race, was in District 10, where former City of Albuquerque County Clerk Katy Duhigg is challenging incumbent Sen. Candace Gould (R-Albuquerque).
The chart also shows that the top fundraisers in the Senate tend to be Democratic incumbents. However, there are a few outliers such as Sen. Gould and Rep. David Gallegos (D-Eunice), who is not seeking reelection to his House seat, but challenging Sen. Gregg Fulfer (R-Jal) for the District 41 seat. It is not surprising that Sen. Stuart Ingle (R-Portales) is in the top 20 fundraisers as he is the Republican leader. Notably, all Democratic leadership and most committee chairmen also are on the chart.
Campaign and Political Committees
During the 2019 Legislative Session, campaign finance laws were changed to create Legislative Caucus Committees. These committees allow for the leaders of the major political parties in their respective chambers to designate a political committee as its Legislative Caucus Committee. The campaign reports in October 2019 gave a first glimpse into whether such fundraising mechanisms would be influential. The figures from the reporting disclosures this month show that these campaign mechanisms are not only influential but competitive with political action committees (PACs). The committees for each party and chamber are as follows:
The two charts below show the top 10 PACs with the most contributions and the top 10 PACs with the most expenditures. This information gives a first look into the active committees that are likely heavily participating in the June Primary. The four legislative caucus committees, circled on the charts, are significantly placed on both lists. Also present on both charts are the Democratic and Republican party-political committees.
The links to the right of the charts allow for deeper insight to where money is raised and spent by these political committees. The contributions received by both PACs and Legislative Caucus Committees are from similar sources, however how the money is expended shows a difference. Another difference between the legislative caucus committees and other PACs is in regulation. For example, PACs can raise any dollar amount from any donor, but legislative caucus committees can only raise up to $25,000 an election cycle per donor. However, there is no limitation on the amount of contribution dollars a legislative caucus committee can receive from a candidate’s campaign committees. It will be noteworthy to see if candidates without opponents relinquish their funds to their respective Legislative Caucus Committees as fundraising is likely to slump even after the primary.
In addition to the Legislative Caucus Committee, the leaders of those committees have their own campaign committees. The information below shows the leaders fundraising figures as they compare to their peers in other leadership positions.
The next set of reports in a month will likely show us where money is being spent by all these campaign and political committees. The effort by all candidates and their supporters is likely to be focused on turning out their respective voters. At this point, it is unclear if the Secretary of State’s Office has the capacity to handle mass mailing of applications as well as additional applications coming in through the online portal.
Lastly, lawmakers have begun urging Gov. Lujan Grisham to call for a special session. Media reports state that the Governor is unlikely to do so any time before the summer. With the primary scheduled for June 2, it is entirely possible that some lawmakers could be attending the special session with no hope of attending the Regular Session in 2021.