Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

New Mexico’s GOP governor hopefuls spending big to connect with voters | Local News

It takes a lot of gas to run a gubernatorial campaign.

The five candidates seeking the Republican nomination for governor have racked up thousands of dollars in fuel charges — and thousands of miles on their vehicles’ odometers — as they’ve crisscrossed the state on the campaign trail over the past six months.

“The car that I bought in August had nine miles when I got it. It just passed 49,000, and it’s on its second set of tires,” said state Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences, who reported $6,400 in mileage reimbursements.

Although high, the candidates’ fuel charges pale in comparison to other big-ticket expenditures listed in their most recent campaign finance reports, filed Monday.

Since October, the five hopefuls spent a combined $1.36 million to try to connect with Republican voters — and voters in general — before the June 7 primary.

The winner in the five-way race will face off against Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has nearly $3.8 million cash on hand, and a Libertarian candidate.

Political consultants in New Mexico and across the country were among the biggest beneficiaries of the Republican candidates’ spending.

Big fundraiser, big donor

Mark Ronchetti, a former TV meteorologist who raised $2.1 million over the past six months, more than all of his Republican rivals combined, led in spending, too.

Ronchetti reported nearly $584,000 in expenditures.

The biggest expense for Ronchetti, who has been running TV ads statewide, was $158,724 in media advertising.

It was followed by more than $132,000 to McCleskey Media Strategies for a wide variety of services, from media production costs to design and printing. The president of the Albuquerque-based political consulting firm is Jay McCleskey, who ran former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s gubernatorial campaigns and also served as her chief political adviser during her two terms in office.

Asked about the campaign’s decision to work with McCleskey, Enrique Knell, Ronchetti’s campaign spokesman, said the campaign doesn’t generally discuss strategy or spending.

“Mark’s campaign is about listening to New Mexicans and talking about his vision for turning New Mexico around after four years of a disastrous administration that has devastated family budgets and our freedoms,” Knell wrote in an email.

Ronchetti listed dozens of fuel charges that added up to more than $4,900.

“Mark is driving to every corner in New Mexico to meet voters and talk about the issues New Mexicans face,” wrote Knell, who called the price of gas an “absolute disaster” for families and small businesses.

Knell argued gas prices would be climbing even higher if the Legislature had passed a proposed clean fuel standard that Lujan Grisham supported during the 30-day session earlier this year.

Boosting name ID

Dow, who raised more than $751,000 since October, came in second in spending with just over $406,000 in expenditures.

A $112,500 ad buy was the biggest expenditure for Dow, who has released two television ads. That was followed by some $99,000 in political consulting services and about $35,000 in mailings and other campaign literature.

“I started this race with 3 percent name ID, so you see a lot of mailers because we’re targeting voters and letting them know who we are, what we stand for and how we’re going to move New Mexico forward,” she said. “I am, everywhere I go, passing out business cards, palm cards, putting signs in windows, ‘Small business for Dow’ and ‘Parents for Dow.’ ”

In addition to putting 49,000 miles on her new car, Dow said she’s logged at least 11,000 more miles on her other vehicles as she travels the state.

“Just this week, for example, we’ve gone from Angel Fire to Española to Santa Fe to Albuquerque, T or C and [Las] Cruces and Socorro,” she said. “We’re going to be in Dulce and Aztec and Farmington next week, as well as Carlsbad.”

Dow also reported nearly $10,000 in campaign T-shirts.

“We can’t keep T-shirts in stock,” she said. “Our most popular T-shirt says, ‘Green chile, guns and freedom,’ and the second most popular one says, ‘We’re sticking with Dow,’ and it has cactus on it.”

Dow, who loaned her campaign $40,000, has close to $684,000 cash on hand.

“I think we’re in good shape,” she said. “We’re getting contributions daily.”

Dow said she’s feeling “comfortable” with her campaign’s financials with less than two months until the primary, adding the candidate with the most money doesn’t always emerge the winner.

‘I’m Seabiscuit’

Ethel Maharg, a former mayor of the village of Cuba who now serves as the executive director of the Albuquerque-based Right to Life Committee of New Mexico, said she’s not worried about her campaign’s fundraising numbers.

After raising just $12,999 in the last reporting period, Maharg has less than $800 in cash on hand.

“You gotta understand, I’ve worked for [two nonprofits] for the past 10 years,” Maharg said. “There were times they’d ask the executive committee whether or not we literally could wait to [cash] our checks. To me, not to have that money doesn’t scare me. It probably scares [the other primary candidates]but it doesn’t scare me.”

The biggest chunk of Maharg’s expenses — $4,129 — has been for campaign consulting. That’s followed by fuel at more than $2,000, or about 15 percent of her fundraising haul.

Maharg is undeterred, saying money corrupts. She pointed to a candidate forum in Santa Fe last week in which some of the contenders lodged potshots against their rivals.

“Did you see the display of foolishness?” she asked. “That’s what that money buys you, so I’m not going to be doing attack ads and all this other nonsense that’s going on. I don’t do that.”

Maharg said she was running a “truly grassroots” campaign.

“I don’t need $10,000 so I can stand there and pontificate about how much money I got because every email I get [from the other primary candidates] is like, ‘I raised a million dollars.’ Well, good for you,” she said. “How does that help New Mexico? I’m truly here in the interest of people, not in the interest of raising a million dollars.”

Maharg continues to call herself the “Seabiscuit” of the Republican gubernatorial primary, referring to the small racehorse that upset the 1937 Triple Crown winner, War Admiral, in 1938.

“Slow out of the gate, but I’m going to win in the end,” she said.

‘Still in this fight’

Jay Block, a Sandoval County commissioner who was the top vote-getter in the Republican pre-primary nominating convention, is heading into the primary with a lackluster $20,000 cash on hand.

Like Maharg, Block is optimistic.

“We didn’t spend a lot of money in the convention, and we won the convention, while other campaigns poured in tens of thousands of dollars in mailers and other resources,” he said, saying his, too, is a grassroots campaign.

“The message we’re speaking around the state is resonating, and we certainly don’t believe Mr. Ronchetti’s polls that are done by his consultant Jay McCleskey’s wife. If those polls were correct, he would have won the convention handily.”

Block, who raised nearly $119,000 in campaign contributions since October, reported just over $128,000 in expenditures. The biggest portion —$80,476 — went to McShane LLC, a media strategy and political consulting firm in Las Vegas, Nev.

“They have a lot of experience and a winning record with races from city council to US Senate,” he said.

Block also reported a $5,000 payment for “legal defense” work, which was tied to a court challenge of his nominating petition signatures. The challenge was dismissed on technicalities.

Block said his fundraising efforts are ongoing.

“Today, we had a big donor give us a check for over $5,000,” he said Friday. “We’re fighting. Other campaigns are part of the swamp, and this is a grassroots one, and we’re still in this fight.”

‘A lean operation’

Investment adviser Greg Zanetti, who has about $172,000 in cash on hand, reported $169,396 in contributions over the past six months.

Zanetti spent $237,000 since October, including about $157,000 on the services of three political consulting firms for digital marketing and other expenses.

“We’re running a lean operation,” said Ryan Lynch, who is serving as manager, spokesman and political director for Zanetti’s campaign.

Zanetti loaned his campaign $185,135 at the start of the primary race.

“In a perfect world, we’ll raise so much money that by the end, we’ve got that and then some in the bank and he’s been elected governor and we can reimburse his loan,” Lynch said. “But he’s also committed to spending what it takes, so if that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”

Lynch said “it’s definitely a possibility” Zanetti will loan his campaign more money.

“We’ve got a five-way primary. Anytime you have a crowded field like that, it’s more difficult to raise money and, well, our fundraising certainly reflects that,” he said.

In addition to the loan, Zanetti reported $31,396 of in-kind contributions from himself for travel, advertising and rent. Lynch said he didn’t know exactly how much was for fuel costs but imagines it’s a “big chunk” of the total.

While Zanetti is happy with his fundraising efforts so far, Lynch said the campaign wishes it were better.

“It’s one of those things that, no matter how well you do, it could always be better,” he said.

“We’re doing this sort of the old-fashioned way, handshake to handshake, and it’s thus far proving to be effective,” Lynch said. “There’s more we have to do in terms of traditional marketing, TV and such. But, you know, we’re happy with where we’re at right now, and we’re just going to keep our foot on the accelerator all the way through June 7th.”

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