Gov. Susana Martinez has turned this year’s legislative elections into a proxy referendum on her administration. This unprecedented level of involvement by a sitting governor is a high-stakes bet she really shouldn’t have made.
The governor’s popularity with voters remains strong. She is attempting to translate that into electoral support for certain Republican legislative candidates. What’s causing many political observers to scratch their heads is that she’s throwing nearly $1 million into three long-shot Senate races—despite the fact that she has no chance of controlling the Senate, even if she were to somehow win all three.
Meanwhile, in the House, where the paper-thin Democratic majority suggests she might actually be able to flip control, she’s running into a wall of opposition so strong and well-financed that she is in serious danger of seeing the Democrats re-establish a firm grip on the reins.
Three distinct factors are at work in this struggle for power. The first is redistricting and its consequence: an unusually high turnover rate among incumbents of both parties. At least 12 of 42 Senate districts and 15 of 70 House districts (more if any incumbents lose on Nov. 6) will have newcomers representing them in January. It also means a lot of races have no incumbents running, making predictions much iffier.
The second is the governor herself. The Martinez / McCleskey machine has served up such weak opponents for the Democrats in many races that it is only the governor’s involvement (and money) propping them up.
When I first ran for state Senate, I was shocked to hear I’d have to raise $25,000 to wage a decent campaign.
That’s the case in Chaves County, where Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings is challenged by 27-year old Cliff Pirtle, a Tea Party sympathizer. It’s the case in Sandoval County, where John Sapien is building a lead against candidate David Doyle. Questions have been raised about whether Doyle even lives in his district. And it’s happening in Valencia, where Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez is beating David Chavez. If Martinez wasn’t pouring in boatloads of cash as well as her own endorsement prestige, there would be no suspense in any of those races. They’d be cakewalks for the Democrats, all of them.
But money, great green gobs of it, is the third factor, and while Martinez (thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision that spending money on elections is “free” speech) has attracted beaucoup bucks for her legislative flock, the Democrats’ response has been almost as flush.
With big oil, big business and the Republican governors stacking up chips on one side of the table and big labor, environmentalists and trial lawyers matching them, this year’s races have been twisted into bizarre spending contests on a scale beyond anything ever seen in this state.
When I first ran for state Senate, I was shocked to hear I’d have to raise $25,000 to wage a decent campaign. After all, these are unpaid, supposedly part-time positions for which the parties often have a hard time finding warm bodies.
For example, only half of this year’s 112 legislative races are being contested. And in Republican districts, Democrats have practically no chance. The same goes in Democratic districts for the GOP. So of the 19 Senate “contests,” only a quarter are really in play. And of the 35 House “contests,” probably only 10 represent true opportunities for either side. The rest of the races are safe seats.
But in those vigorously contested districts, five in the Senate and 10 in the House, a $25,000 campaign would look laughable this year. There are a couple in which each side will likely spend almost half a million dollars. The others will probably all go over the $100,000 mark. There are even races using television ads this year, luxury expenditures in a New Mexico legislative campaign.
Yet for all that cash being tossed around, the Senate will see at most a swing of two, possibly three, seats in either direction. That is, if the governor is incredibly successful, she will have increased the number of Republican senators to 17. She could also lose one or two. In the House, adding just three seats to the Republican total would give them control. But Martinez will be hard-pressed to hold onto the five seats the GOP wrested from the Democrats in 2010 on the strength of her coattails. At least two or three of them are likely to move back into their traditional Democratic niches.
Money distorts campaigns. There really are just a few things a candidate can buy with donations that make a difference. Most of the real persuasion takes place through sweaty, inexpensive but effective, door-to-door precinct walking. Mailers cost almost a buck apiece and mostly get tossed unread. Each robo call is cheap, but that’s because most result in hang-ups. Yard signs, radio and billboard ads—all of them churn money endlessly, but convert entire careers and platforms into single sentence sound bites.
There we have the downward spiral of money’s paradoxical impact on politics: The more you have, the more you spend—and the less you can say. We are cheapening the content of our politics even as we make running more expensive.