“Dark money” groups are taking an early swipe at Democratic U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small through political advertisements airing more than a year before the general election, in which the first-term congresswoman plans to run for reelection in Southern New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District.
Pro-Trump political organizations — including the American Action Network, the Presidential Coalition and the Club for Growth — have spent thousands of dollars on ads in support of Republican President Donald Trump or attacking Torres Small over her support for the presidential impeachment inquiry in a district that turned out heavily for Trump in 2016. Such groups, which make political contributions and are not required to disclose their donors, are commonly referred to as “dark money” organizations.
The advertisements come far earlier than is typical in a New Mexico congressional race, underscoring just how competitive the contest will be, political experts say. Campaigning has barely begun for candidates vying for her seat in 2020. Three Republicans are seeking the seat.
“I think the 2nd Congressional District will be one of the most competitive districts in the nation,” said Brian Sanderoff, a pollster with Albuquerque-based Research and Polling Inc.
In the past two months, pro-Trump groups already have spent more than $365,000 on issue-centric ads that ran on local TV affiliates of NBC, CBS, Fox and ABC in New Mexico, El Paso and Durango, Colo., according to an analysis by The New Mexican of hundreds of Federal Communications Commission documents.
The Presidential Coalition alone launched a seven-figure TV and digital ad campaign against Torres Small and four other Democrats in vulnerable districts in New York, South Carolina, Utah and Michigan. The group spent close to half a million dollars on Facebook ads, including between $2,400 and $2,900 for one that started airing in New Mexico on Nov. 20, Facebook ad data shows.
The American Action Network has spent close to $200,000 on TV ads and several hundred to several thousand dollars more on online ads bashing Torres Small, according to FCC and Google transparency records.
The Club for Growth spent between $1,000 and $50,000 on an online advertisement in late October criticizing the congresswoman. The Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee also purchased online ads attacking Torres Small through Google and Facebook.
Torres Small wrested the historically Republican district from GOP control by a slim 3,722 votes in 2018, in a midterm election.
She likely will face another fierce fight from Republicans during her reelection bid.
The district has put a Republican in Congress every year since 1981, minus the two years that Democrat Harry Teague served from 2009-11 and the 11 months since Torres Small took office. The district also tends to vote Republican in presidential elections.
Yvette Herrell, a real estate investor and former state representative who narrowly lost to Torres Small, will face former New Mexico Oil and Gas Association Chairwoman Claire Chase and Chris Mathys, a local businessman, in the Republican primary in June.
The opposing party of the sitting president typically fares better in a midterm election, Sanderoff said. But it will be a different dynamic in 2020, a presidential election year.
It’s also unclear whether Democrats’ presidential impeachment inquiry will end up helping them win the White House and down-ballot races. Torres Small was one of the last Democratic holdouts to announce support for the impeachment inquiry, finally making a statement in October.
One thing is likely: Spending against Torres Small this early in the campaign will pressure groups that support her reelection bid to begin spending on ads much sooner than they might have hoped.
Hard-line Democrats and Republicans in her Southern New Mexico district might have already made up their minds, but both sides will be targeting independents who are on the fence, trying to pry their way to an advantage with wedge issues. In this case, the wedge for Republicans could be the impeachment procedures rather than typical kitchen table issues.
Ads aired by the Presidential Coalition, for example, show images of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, linking Torres Small to liberal Democrats who have been vocal in the politics of impeachment.
“The Party’s plan is to win our three seats. Rep. Torres Small was sent to Washington to help New Mexicans. Instead, she’s wasting time supporting this impeachment sham,” New Mexico Republican Party spokesman Mike Curtis said in a statement.
“It’s embarrassing. She’s let down her state and the people she’s supposed to represent,” Curtis continued. “She should do the right thing and work on real policy and issues like USMCA, jobs and border security, instead of taking part in this Democratic farce.”
Lonna Atkeson, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico, said the ads against Torres Small seem designed to try to sway independents with that same argument. But she said she doubts the ads will be effective.
“The people that are independent … those individuals aren’t paying attention yet, so I don’t think you’re speaking right now to an audience who’s attentive to the issue that’s going on. There’s no campaign going on. It’s just this message,” she said.
While pro-Trump groups are running ads in Torres Small’s district and others, pro-Torres Small forces do not seem to have fully mobilized.
The House Majority Forward PAC — a Democratic dark money group — spent $48,000 on ads backing her in August on Albuquerque and Roswell TV stations, FCC filings show. It was part of a planned $10 million 2019 advertising blitz backing freshman Democrats in the House across the country, Politico reported.
But the PAC has not purchased TV spots in her district since then. It did, however, buy online ads in September, along with Center Forward and Xochitl for New Mexico, praising the congresswoman.
The pro-Democrat Sixteen Thirty Fund also spent between $2,000 and $100,000 on online ads that ran from early October to the end of November backing Torres Small, according to Google transparency reports.
Emily’s List touts Torres Small as one of the group’s three “featured” candidates. The PAC, devoted to electing more women running on the Democratic ticket, has donated $5,000 to Torres Small’s 2020 election cycle so far, according to OpenSecrets.