As the June 2 primary election nears, some candidates in the heated 3rd Congressional District Democratic race are using so-called dark money spending as their cudgel against Teresa Leger Fernandez in the waning days of the campaign.
The question is, will the attacks on the self-proclaimed front-runner make a difference?
Despite her condemnation of an ad featuring Nazi imagery and her full-throated support for campaign finance reform, criticism of Leger Fernandez in the seven-person Democratic Party race intensified last week after a secretive nonprofit released the attack spot bringing up a 2017 controversy involving former CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Such ads have fueled attacks from some of her rivals, who continue to slam Leger Fernandez, both directly and indirectly, over so-called dark money — funds from entities that do not disclose their donors and pour money into races, including the 3rd Congressional District.
Candidate forums have been largely positive over the past several months.
But a forum hosted by the LGBTQ Envision Fund Advisory Committee Thursday night devolved into criticism of shadowy groups pouring likely more than $400,000 into ads in support of Leger Fernandez or attacking Plame, who some see as her direct competitor.
Former New Mexico Deputy Secretary of State John Blair and Santa Fe-area District Attorney Marco Serna demanded Leger Fernandez denounce dark money ad spending and call for it all to come down — including ads running in support of Leger Fernandez funded by separate groups connected to Sen. Harry Reid’s former chief of staff, David Krone, according to Jewish Insider.
“What’s really sad is that I am the front-runner in this campaign,” Leger Fernandez said during the Thursday forum in response to criticism over the spending. “And because I’m the front-runner, because I have a history of just doing good out there in the world, I got endorsed by some entities that want to see more Latinas, more women. But now they’re saying I am somehow responsible for all the negative in the world.
“I have issued statements — the press hasn’t always printed them — that say I denounce dark money … and that indeed my work has been recognized, has always been about addressing campaign finance reform. That’s why End Citizens United endorsed me,” she said, referring to a Democratic political action committee that wishes to overturn a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that allowed corporations and outside groups to make unlimited expenditures in elections.
Some political observers say that could be a way to gain an edge in a close primary for a seat that’s not considered competitive for Republicans.
Seeming “the most pure” when it comes to outside spending and campaign finance disclosure is in general a common theme in Democratic primaries, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
The anti-Plame ad prompted a group called VoteVets to call on Leger Fernandez “to apologize to Plame and for the group sponsoring [the ad] to take them down.”
Leger Fernandez has denounced the ad, called for it to come down and said she has no connection to the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance to Combat Extremism Fund behind the Plame attack ad, which in addition to Nazi imagery draws attention to a controversial 2017 social media post in which the former CIA agent, who says she descends from Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, posted an anti-Semitic article titled “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars.”
Plame has repeatedly apologized.
On Friday, Blair released a new ad running on cable networks and online criticizing “dark money … flooding into New Mexico,” telling voters, “I’ll never stop fighting to get big money out of politics.”
Separately, people in Santa Fe are receiving text messages from an unknown source that reads: “Hi, did you see how Leger Fernandez is bought by “Dark Money” groups? We deserve a Congressperson who will keep dirty money out of NM!”
The text does not offer any indication of who might be behind the attack, and every Democratic primary candidate denies involvement.
How any of this will impact the electorate remains a mystery.
“I guess the question is: How many undecided voters are there?” said Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico. “We’re in a field of somewhat known names, not big dealers. So that’s challenging particularly in a COVID environment, and who’s paying attention?
“They must feel that Teresa’s got the edge, all that money, all those resources … those things usually do help,” Atkeson added.
Leger Fernandez has raised nearly as much money as Plame, the top fundraiser in the field. She also appears to be the Democratic establishment favorite, having won 41.9 percent of delegate support at the state’s pre-primary nominating convention and numerous endorsements from influential Washington, D.C., groups. She’s also hired a firm founded by a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director, Dan Sena, who is credited with helping win 40 U.S. House seats when Democrats took majority control of the chamber in 2018.
The firm, Sena Kozar Strategies, has worked on the campaign of Xochitl Torres Small, who captured the 2nd Congressional District seat in conservative-leaning Southern New Mexico in 2018.
Sena and co-founder Scott Kozar, a media consultant, are also advisors to U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, Politico reported. Luján gave up the seat to run for the U.S. Senate.
On Thursday, Leger Fernandez’s campaign issued a long statement “on false accusations” swirling in the heated U.S. House race.
In it, she argued her campaign stands for a “progressive vision” in which dark money has no place and pointed out her campaign had been endorsed by groups, including End Citizens United, that have advocated for campaign finance reforms to reduce the influence of money in politics.
Leger Fernandez also denounced “the media” and “other candidates in this race” she did not name for attacks trying to tie dark money ad spending to her campaign.
“This type of vilification has no place in our politics, and I’ve forcibly condemned this ad since it first became public. It’s one thing to talk about someone’s record, but it’s another to vilify people in this hateful way, and the ad should of course come down,” she said in a statement, referring to the anti-Plame ad.
Still, during the Thursday candidate forum, Serna and Sandoval County Treasurer Laura Montoya challenged Leger Fernandez to also disavow the supportive ads from Avacy Initiatives Inc. and Perise Practical Inc., which together have spent more than $300,000 touting her New Mexico roots. The groups are separate from the fund behind the Plame attack ad.
“Can you just say right now that you denounce the two organizations that John [Blair] initially brought up?” Serna asked.
Leger Fernandez deflected.
“OK, let me say one more time that a candidate cannot communicate, direct or control a third party — so if EMILY’s List or Women’s Vote wants to spend some money, they can do it. I can say, yes, I don’t like dark money. That’s the way the law is now. They’re asking me to do something that I actually don’t have the power to do.”