U.S. Senate candidate Heather Wilson, a moderate Republican, has been on the receiving end of more than $1.4 million to date in attack ads urging voters in New Mexico not to vote for her.
But it’s not big-business-backed super PACs that are targeting her — it’s a who’s who of the nation’s largest environmental groups. Meanwhile, only $250,000 has been spent urging voters to reject her opponent, Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich, all of it by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The contest has gained national attention thanks to the retirement of highly popular, five-term Democratic incumbent Sen. Jeff Bingaman, which gives the GOP a chance to pick up a seat that was otherwise out of reach, and bring the party closer to seizing control of the Senate.
It is also a race where the lines are clearly drawn: Voters have a choice between a pro-union, conservationist in Heinrich and a pro-business, pro-energy candidate in Wilson.
The anti-Wilson spending seems to be helping. Polling group FM3 showed Heinrich with a 3 point lead in mid-May, a dead heat when considering the poll’s 4 point margin of error. The lead stretched to 9 points in the first week of August.
The ads are for “express advocacy,” meaning they urge voters to support or oppose a candidate — not included are “issue ads” that mention a candidate by name, usually in a fairly nasty way, but do not urge a yes or no vote. The Federal Election Commission does not require spending on those ads to be reported until 60 days prior to the general election.
New Mexico, the “Land of Enchantment,” possesses extraordinary beauty and complex politics.
President Barack Obama won the state by 15 points in 2008, yet it has a Republican governor, Susana Martinez. Once considered a potential running mate for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, she has criticized the candidate’s immigration policy.
Former President George W. Bush eked out a victory in the state in the 2004 election, thanks to adequate support among Hispanic voters, who currently make up nearly 47 percent of the population. Obama is favored to win in 2012.
Wilson represented New Mexico’s 1st District — the same seat her opponent now holds — from 1998 to 2009. She then ran for Senate, losing in the primary to Rep. Steve Pearce, who was ultimately defeated by then-Rep. Tom Udall, now New Mexico’s junior U.S. Senator. She sat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, and energy companies were among her major backers.
Employees and political action committees from the oil and gas industry gave her more than $781,000 during her career in Congress, more than any other industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. So far in the 2012 race, oil and gas is again her top industry donor, having contributed more than $217,000 to her campaign.
Heinrich’s career top donor is the League of Conservation Voters, whose political action committee and members have given his campaigns more than $145,000, according to CRP. He is also a favorite of labor unions.
The sums expended by outside groups thus far have been considerable — especially with the race still more than two months away.
When including positive ads, the New Mexico race has so far attracted more than $2.7 million in independent expenditures made by outside groups, according to an analysis of FEC data by the Center for Public Integrity. The total includes spending by nonprofits and super PACs freed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows them to accept unlimited contributions from individuals, unions and corporations.
As for the candidates themselves, Wilson has raised $3.9 million through June, according to FEC records, while Heinrich has raised $3.8 million.
The politically active arms of big-name conservationist groups like the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council have all run ads attacking Wilson. The League of Conservation Voters has spent more than $350,000 on independent expenditures opposing Wilson this cycle.
The groups have long opposed Wilson’s voting record, which is the reason for the attack ads, said Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico.
“They want to influence the voters, but they also have a history with these candidates,” Atkeson said.
The League regularly releases a scorecard evaluating the pro-environmental voting record for every member of Congress. It gave Wilson a 15 percent favorable rating and Heinrich a 92 in its most recent release.
One anti-Wilson ad, jointly released by the League of Conservation Voters and the Defenders of Wildlife Action Committee, titled “Emma,” features a young schoolgirl drinking from a water fountain while the voiceover accuses Wilson of letting oil companies “off the hook” for using MTBE, a fuel additive that reduces harmful emissions in car exhaust and can contaminate groundwater.
The ad criticizes Wilson’s vote for a provision in energy bills from 2003 to 2005 that would protect oil companies from lawsuits involving MTBE contamination, a measure that was not included in the bill that eventually passed and became law.
Wilson is generally described as a moderate, but “she was going right along with George W. Bush and Karl Rove when she was in Congress,” said League of Conservation Voters spokesman Jeff Gohringer.
Wilson’s campaign dismisses the spending by conservation groups as the work of “environmental extremists” who have poured in “millions of dollars to falsely attack” Heather Wilson because she doesn’t support their “extremist job-killing agenda,” said campaign spokesman Chris Sanchez.
It is hard to say who is paying for the ad.
The Defenders of Wildlife Action Committee is a super PAC funded entirely by the League of Conservation Voters, Inc. and the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, both nonprofits that do not disclose their donors.
Meanwhile, pro-business groups have been running ads attacking Heinrich. Campaign spokeswoman Whitney Potter accused “corporate special interests” of spending millions of dollars in “secret money” to distort Heinrich’s record.
Thus far, the only anti-Heinrich ad reported to the FEC is the $250,000 Chamber of Commerce spot, criticizing him for his votes opposing offshore drilling and extending the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Heinrich has said he supports clean, “home-grown” energy.
But that spending doesn’t include “Stands,” an anti-Heinrich issue ad from a mysterious nonprofit called American Commitment. The ad hasn’t been reported to the FEC, presumably because it falls outside the agency’s regulatory window for disclosure. Other such ads include “Frustrating” from American Future Fund and “Calendar” from Crossroads GPS, both non-disclosing nonprofits.
The Chamber will likely be heard from again before the election.
It plans to spend more than $50 million on the 2012 elections, chamber president and CEO Tom Donahue said in May. The Chamber is the nation’s largest business association, having spent more than $66 million on lobbying in 2011 and a little under $33 million on outside spending on political races during the 2010 election cycle, according to CRP. It has spent at more than $11 million so far this cycle.
“With control of the Senate in doubt there will be lots of interest and likely lots of outside spending there during the fall,” said Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics.
Blair Latoff, a spokeswoman for the Chamber, declined to comment on how much the association plans to spend in New Mexico.
Not all the ads in this still-young race have been negative. The super PAC American Crossroads has paid for nearly $430,000 in pro-Wilson ads. Soon after Crossroads hit the airwaves in early June, environmentalist groups began running ads attacking Wilson’s record on the environment.
American Crossroads did not return requests for comment.
The candidates have also been buying airtime. Wilson on July 24 released an ad that attacks Heinrich for voting in favor of a tax on medical devices, calling him “too extreme for New Mexico.”
While it may seem early, Biersack says spending “often has the biggest impact when voters are forming their general impressions of candidates.”
The candidate’s views are subject to interpretation, but based on their advertising, the views of the outside spending groups are not. The election is being portrayed as a showdown between environmentalists and big business. And at least for the moment, the environmentalists appear to have the upper hand.
John Dunbar contributed to this report.