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Teresa Leger Fernandez speaks at the Democratic pre-primary convention. Leger Fernandez has been hit over ‘dark money’ spending on her behalf.

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!”

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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.”

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(24) comments

Marlene and Paul Schwalje

Dark money is defined by its opacity to the voter, not whether an ad is positive or negative. Sorry, a candidate doesn't get to selectively decide that dark money is bad when it's ugly but OK when it's supportive. My father taught me that just because an action is legal doesn’t make it ethical. I’m seeking consistency in the candidate who will get my vote for CD3 – NOT convenience.

Jim Klukkert

Knowing Teresa Leger Fernandez's platform, record of service and stand against dark money, I am voting for Leger Fernandez.

Dark money should be out of politics, Citizens United must be repealed. My opposition to selling our democracy to the property owning class, the billionaires, the one percent is totally in line with voting for Teresa.

I also look forward to voting for BERNIE SANDERS in the primary, so he will have more clout in formulating the Democratic Party Convention Platform.

Khal Spencer

Seems like this fund should really be called the Alliance to Torpedo Plame Fund.

https://apnews.com/b444a7d8139fce67a4cf72bbe39fff66

Dr. Michael Johnson

Right Khal, and I think the AP story presents the obvious connection between these dark money attack ads and the Leger woman, who has other dark money special interests involved in her campaign as well.

Jim Klukkert

Here is all the article has to say about Teresa [that 'Leger woman'] and dark money.

"Another prominent candidate, Teresa Leger Fernandez, called the attack ads extremely offensive and sexist, and said her campaign has no connection to the group behind it.

Independent expenditure groups are airing flattering ads about Leger Fernandez, with financial support from undisclosed sources."

Hardly an indictment.

Moreover, Dr. Johnson's comment " the Leger woman ... has other dark money special interests involved in her campaign as well" uses an active expression of the verb 'to have.' The implication, though not forthright, is that Teresa is at the helm of a behind the scenes operation, a charge which cannot be substantiated.

The objective reality is much better expressed to convey that other groups endorsed, and have lent their support to, Fernandez Ledger. Top wit: "Other groups are supporting Leger Fernandez in the Congressional campaign." This statement does not carry implications beyond the facts apparent, nor does it carry the innuendo of conspiratorial corruption.

I admire Dr. Johnson's intelligence, but I find in this matter his political agenda has swayed his objectivity. And of course, that is Dr. Johnson's right to his own opinion. As a supporter of Ledge Fernandez, I of course will poke what holes I can in the arguments of the opposition.

Gentle Reader, do please vote!

Dr. Michael Johnson

Yes, Mr. Klukkert, I am fully aware I am fighting very powerful, dark forces with huge sums of money, influence and political clout in supporting Joe over this Leger woman. I guess I take after my great grandfather in that regard. I also fought for another dedicated, honest, sincere, experienced, and well educated local hero named Carl Trujillo, against the same kind of forces and probably the same people. I lost, the grifter won, and we the people are suffering every day because of that. I do not intend to stand by idly as it happens again. But you are free to choose, and you have, but I will never accept the Leger woman as my representative, just as I don't accept #ResistRomero, they are two peas in a pod, but I guess you are happy. Good for you.

Khal Spencer

Figuring out who is spending money on whom in return for what is difficult. Bottom line? Dark money corrupts the system and all of those within the system and breeds cynicism. As I said below, no one emerges without s h i t all over them.

Gus Walbolt

Our nation would be better off if we did away with all "dark money" in politics.

John Cook

Yes, we would be better off. Which is why End Citizen's United has endorsed Teresa. Don't confuse dark money with the independent expenditures of groups like Emily's List and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus which disclose their donors. Those are the groups supporting Teresa. This ugly ad against Valerie has nothing to do with Teresa which is pretty obvious because it hurts Teresa as well as Valerie. I notice that Valerie has never suggested Teresa is in any way involved. Nor has Joe Sanchez. Only Blair and Serna are trying to conflate those two things.

Stephen Coutts

Every Democratic candidate, to my knowledge, opposes "dark money". Leger's platform has included it from the inception. She has earned the endorsement of the group End Citizens United.

That said, until that terrible ruling by the Supreme Court is ended by law, no one's campaign can control what third-party ("dark money") groups do for or against their candidacy.

Khal Spencer

Looking at that Opensecrets page, it seems Plame is spending money (much of which was raised outside NM) like a drunken sailor. Leger Fernandez is getting all this help from...dark forces.

The whole thing reminds me of that Monty Python Holy Grail skit where Arthur, followed by his fake horse tapping coconuts together, is riding through a filthy town where they are piling the plague bodies:

Peasant 1: Who's that there?

Peasant 2: I don't know... Must be a king...

Peasant 1: Why?

Peasant 2: He hasn't got s**t all over him.

Can't say that about either of these front runners. Vote for Joe.

Dr. Michael Johnson

Well said Khal, and it should be pointed out that the Open Secrets data does NOT include any of the dark money the Leger woman is having spent on her behalf (positive or negative) for TV ads, flyers, etc. It only includes direct donations to her campaign. So her total no doubt is probably far larger than Plame's, as Plame has no dark money involved.

Khal Spencer

It looks like this might turn into another "Hold Yer Nose and Vote November" unless Joe can pull it off.

Dr. Michael Johnson

I would easily vote for Harry Montoya if Joe does not win. Harry is a good man too.

Bronwen Murray

Could it be Republican dark money funding the negative ad against Plame? Her race was a grudge match against the GOP from the beginning. Perhaps they wish to embarrass and discourage Ms. Plame from seeking another office, should she not win her first election.

John Cook

Yes, you are right. And also to provide an attack on Leger Fernandez. cf. the following comment.

Dr. Michael Johnson

This Leger woman misses the mark on all counts. She claims she can't control the millions in dark money from out of state pouring into her campaign, after the denies it is happening, really? Blames the press and journalists for calling her out with the truth. And says she is pure as the driven snow when it comes to the kind of people spreading hate and division in this race with these millions. Meanwhile I get a huge, full color flyer every day in the mail, for the last 2 months, 3-4 robocalls a day from her supporters, funded by who knows who, and see 8-10 commercials for her every night during the national and local news programs. This is massive money folks, no one spends that kind of money without an expectation of buying a candidate for your special interests and doing your bidding, and they are NOT the average people of CD3. If you want an honest, real New Mexican who cares about all of us, understands our problems with issues like water, jobs, safety, etc., and is not bought and paid for by out of state special interests, vote for Joe! #TeamSanchez.

Stefanie Beninato

Leger Fernandez has money galore apparently--I received almost one a day campaign flyers from her. Too much, a waste of money and increased carbon footprinting.

Stephen Coutts

Plame has spent $1.7M, according to Federal Election Commission filings, and Leger has spent less than half that amount.

Carmen M

Seems like SFNM printed a similar article just a couple weeks ago.

Why haven't you printed amount of donations for each candidate. Would be of interest to see where each one's donations are coming from.

After the election, perhaps Mr Blair and Mr. Serna could work to overturn Citizens United, which is the real villain here.

John Cook

I agree with you. As it happens, there is a national organization named End Citizens United whose purpose it to get rid of dark money. That organization has endorsed Teresa Leger Fernandez.

Dr. Michael Johnson

https://www.opensecrets.org/races/summary?cycle=2020&id=NM03

Stephen Coutts

Agree that SFNM seems intent on headlines with both "dark" and "Leger". What message is the paper trying to convey? They, as well as all of the candidates, know that third-party ads do not come from and cannot be controlled by the candidates and their campaigns.

Looks to me as though the candidates who have gained little traction on the issues are throwing whatever they can find against the wall in hopes that something will stick.

Stephen Coutts

Nearly 90% of Plame's donations have come from outside New Mexico, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Blair is next with 51% outside our state, then Serna with 46% and last Leger 37%.

Plame has raised $2M, Leger $1.3, Serna $640K and Blair $396K.

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