Journalism in the Public Interest

Dark Money Poured Into New Mexico Senate Contest

An analysis of newly
available TV station political ad files shows how groups that don’t have to
report their donors played a major role in one race for an open U.S. Senate

A still from a Crossroads GPS ad targeting Democratic Senate candidate Martin Heinrich.

Dark money groups flooded Albuquerque’s airwaves in August, aiming to sway a hotly contested U.S. Senate race by making more than half the political ad buys on top TV stations.

That fact, gleaned through a review of TV station political ad records now available in our Free the Files news application, highlights the role that unlimited anonymous money is playing in this year’s election.

Our analysis of a month of ad orders in the Senate race between Republican Heather Wilson and Democrat Rep. Martin Heinrich is possible because of a new Federal Communications Commission rule requiring major-market affiliates of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC to upload political ad files to a government website.

In statements to ProPublica, the campaigns of Heinrich and Wilson blamed each other for relying on dark money.

Wilson campaign spokesman Chris Sanchez accused “environmental extremists” of pouring money “into New Mexico to falsely attack Heather Wilson because they know her opponent, Congressman Heinrich, supports their radical agenda.”

Heinrich campaign spokeswoman Whitney Potter accused “corporate special interest groups” of spending millions in secret money to support Wilson “because they know she will support their misplaced priorities that put the wealthy special interests ahead of middle-class families in New Mexico.”

The Senate race has attracted national attention because, with incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman retiring, it is a rare open seat. The race was considered tight earlier this year. After a summer of heavy spending by outside groups on both sides, Heinrich is now the favorite.

In August, while Wilson’s campaign contracted to spend about $512,000 on ads in Albuquerque, four prominent conservative groups booked almost $658,000 of ads attacking Heinrich, station records show.

That means about 56 percent of the ad orders on the Republican side came from groups that don’t disclose their donors, including Americans for Prosperity, founded by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, and Crossroads GPS, launched by GOP strategist Karl Rove. Campaigns are required to report their donors.

Heinrich, who as a congressman has called for donor disclosure and campaign-finance reform, booked an estimated $246,000 worth of ads in August. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which also reports its donors, chimed in with another $74,000.

But nonprofits on the Democratic side spent an additional $288,000 on ads criticizing Wilson, about 47 percent of the money spent on ads overall.

The liberal dark money groups included a coalition of environmental organizations and the Citizens for Strength and Security Fund, which appears to be a successor to a nonprofit active in the 2010 election.

The spending figures are estimates because most of the files uploaded to the FCC website are ad orders. Sometimes, ordered ads never run because of changes in programming. The numbers also are  not comprehensive; other TV stations in the Albuquerque market besides affiliates of the major networks do not have to put political ad files online until 2014.

While the FCC files have long been public, they were previously kept on paper at TV stations and were largely inaccessible. The files capture certain spending not reported to the Federal Election Commission and offer a detailed look at how campaigns and outside groups are spending ad dollars, including how many ads have been ordered, which stations are running them, the programs they run on, and how much they cost.

The ad spending in Albuquerque shows that nonprofit social welfare groups are playing at least as significant a role this election cycle as super PACs, which can also accept unlimited donations but must report their donors. Not a single super PAC reported buying ads in August on the top stations in the Albuquerque market, the FCC filings show.

Some of the most prominent conservative social welfare nonprofits signed up to support Wilson, producing ads labeling Heinrich an out-of-control spender.

“Big Washington spending is not helping New Mexico. And the more money Martin Heinrich is spending is part of the problem,” a narrator in a Crossroads GPS ad says. Pointing to Heinrich’s support for the stimulus, the ad claims he voted to send $2 million to California to collect ants and $300,000 to Texas to study weather on Venus.

The group ordered about $166,000 in ads in Albuquerque in August, TV station filings show.

Unlike most candidates Crossroads is helping around the country, Wilson has a direct connection to the group. After she left Congress in 2009, she sat on Crossroads’ board for a six-month period ending in February 2011, according to her financial disclosure form.

In that role, “she attended board meetings, wrote an op-ed on defense policy, and provided general guidance, as all Crossroads board members do, on the organization’s activities and policies,” said Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio.

Sanchez said Wilson does not currently have an “existing relationship or communication with Crossroads GPS.” Outside spending groups such as Crossroads are not allowed to coordinate directly with candidates.

Like the Crossroads ad, another pair of August ads funded by anonymous money labeled Heinrich an irresponsible spender. The American Future Fund, the conservative Iowa nonprofit, signed up to spend almost $97,000 on ads. Americans for Prosperity ordered almost $328,000 in ads in August.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the only trade association spending money in Albuquerque in August, spent more than $67,000 on ads criticizing Heinrich.

Heinrich’s campaign has seized on the outside money on the conservative side even as he has benefited from dark money spending by liberal groups.

Last week, his campaign put out an ad featuring TVs playing conservative attack ads arriving at an airport luggage carousel. “Here they come,” the narrator says. “The special interests are here to distort Martin Heinrich’s record.” 

Heinrich has also supported a bill, which has failed twice in Congress, to require outside spending groups to disclose their donors for political ads. In March, he sent a letter to the FCC urging it to swiftly implement greater transparency measures in disclosing who paid for political ads.

Nonetheless, a coalition of environmental groups including the League of Conservation Voters and the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund, has spent more than $1 million supporting Heinrich, including an ad accusing Wilson of being too cozy with polluting corporations.

In August, the coalition put in orders for more than $70,000 for TV ads in Albuquerque. (Most of the environmental groups’ spending took place earlier in the summer, before the FCC required TV stations to put political ad files online.)

On Tuesday an official from the League of Conservation Voters sent out a press release claiming the groups’ spending had decisively turned the race in Heinrich’s favor.

Another group, the Citizens for Strength and Security Fund, ordered about $218,000 in commercials to aid Heinrich in Albuquerque in August. Its ad says that Wilson is “promising more tax giveaways for millionaires”:  

So what is the Citizens for Strength and Security Fund? Its website says it is a social welfare nonprofit formed in 2011 to strengthen the country and make the middle class more secure. Yet the site uses the same clip art, cites the same issues, and repeats much of the language as a now-defunct website for a similarly named group, the Citizens for Strength and Security Action Fund, or CSS Action Fund, that spent millions on ads supporting Democrats in the 2010 election.

A ProPublica story in August detailed how some social welfare nonprofits pop up for elections and disappear, only to re-form later, always staying a step ahead of the IRS. ProPublica found that some groups, including the CSS Action Fund, never applied to the IRS for recognition of their nonprofit status.

A March 2 letter in the FCC filings from Albuquerque says the Citizens for Strength and Security Fund is run by Lora Haggard, the chief financial officer for John Edwards’ campaign in 2008. The other officer named is Jeremy Van Ess, another longtime operative who works for Hilltop Public Solutions, a Beltway consulting firm that supports Democratic causes. The two people listed as running the CSS Action Fund (the earlier nonprofit) worked for Hilltop.

Haggard didn’t return calls for comment. Van Ess confirmed the group’s spending in New Mexico and said it had not applied to the IRS for recognition of its tax status because it was not required to do so. He declined to answer any other questions about Citizens for Strength and Security.

Like so many political ads this season these are largely ineffective because most people have already made up their minds.  In addition, the Wilson ads blame Heinrich, who is a Representative, for things the Republican controlled House did.  People are just not that stupid.

Heather Wilson seriously miscalculated her chances of winning this race, based an faulty assumptions.  All the ‘dark money’ in the country isn’t going to win this for her, especially at this late date.  There are still things average people can do to combat the influence of super PAC money, relatively easy things, and we’ve done them here in New Mexico.  I expect that to be less possible in the future, however.  Citizens’ United will have to be dealt with some other way, and it will be, sooner or later.

I wonder if crossroads accepts foreign donations? Nothing wrong with that I guess.

This is exactly why many of us are doing what is WRITE FOR NEW MEXICO and writing in Robert Anderson, ballot-certified Independent for US Senate.

We are sick of endless wasted money on campaigns and politicians addicted to war money (yes both Heinrich and Wilson) while the state moves to number 1 in poverty.

As much as I love Bob and Jean I cannot write them in. Many years Gail Schmidt and I ‘ran’ a write-in campaign but now the issue transcends individual candidates - it is a question of who runs congress. Who can appoint the supreme court judges and what budget components are passed. I know you all know this but are so disaffected with the socio-politco-economy that it is difficult to focus - me too. But Citizens United Johnson. Sorry to prattle but I’veheld back til now.

clarence swinney

Sep. 29, 2012, 3:14 p.m.

yes we can
1945 to 1980 we taxed wealth and estates to pay off WWII debt.
Now, we need the same to Pay off the “Republican” debt.
We have an income of 14,000B.
2013 budget calls for 2900B in revenue and 900B in deficit.
A shame that a nation with 14,000B income borrows 900B on a 3800B Budget.
We rank #4 on Inequality in OECD nations and above only Chile and Mexico as Least taxed.
In Federal-State and Local taxes we tax 27% of our GDP..
Since 1980, our tax rates have been cut to favor the wealthy.
Top 50% take 86% of individual income and pay a 12.5% Tax Rate
70,000,000 take 14% and all pay the full payroll tax.
The top 400 are billionaires. Some pay no payroll tax.
Most pay less than 1%.

We MUST go back to taxing Estates and Wealth at higher rates.
One family has more wealth than 90% of families.

We can balance our budget and pay off our debt which will give the middle class a larger share of our wealth and an improved standard of living. clarence swinney


Sep. 30, 2012, 5:35 p.m.

It is clear that money is becoming an antidote to democracy for the privileged and the power hungry. What can be done to restore the nation?

What is also shocking is that it is possible to write off half the country and still get elected in America! Because of the political duopoly and the blind faith of GOP followers. Plus the GOP’s efforts to disenfranchise many Americans; a fraudulent attempt to prevent “fraud”.

Mitt has written off half of all Americans. I guess he sees them as irresponsible and an expense to America; not his America. I suppose he sees not a “self made” man or woman among them. They didn’t build this country? Romney owes them an apology, yet; he wouldn’t know an apology if it punched him in the nose.

Mitt sees the Presidency as not to help the needy; but rather, to help those who don’t need it. These people are the old and less fortunate, maybe even some thrown in the street after the pillaging of American companies. Mitt and Bain cheated the American Treasury and buried their treasure in the Caribbean. What does Mitt really believe?

America needs Obama. It is actually Obama’s footprints that remain at the RNC; and it is Obama who will move America Forward and rebuild the nation.

Oh please, get real

Oct. 1, 2012, 7:50 p.m.

Ants are really a problem here and I think if they can find a way to keep them from invading our homes it would be huge.  I have never seen so many different varieties of ants in my life.  Some of them bite.  Maybe they carry hanta virus or something like that.

Oh please, get real

Oct. 1, 2012, 7:53 p.m.

Oh forgot to say I am voting for Heinrich, without a doubt.  Heather is just to militaristic.  She voted for defense and the invasion of Iraq.  She is all for defense spending, and that really turns me off.  Maybe she thinks all New Mexico has going for it is the nuclear mini-nuclear bomb designed at Sandia Labs.  Bet she supports drones too.

To Whom It May concern
i am from Afghanistan, live in Afghanistan
i would like to have emial add of dear Kim Barker, becouase of to share some stories with her,
Best Regards

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Free the Files

Free the Files

Outside groups are spending hundreds of millions to influence the coming elections. Help unlock outside spending by "freeing" political ad buys from television stations in swing markets.

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