Citizens United attorney seeks to overturn N.M. campaign finance reform

By Matthew Reichbach

On Friday, the Republican Party of New Mexico and its allies filed suit in federal court to invalidate the campaign contribution limits law passed by the legislature in 2009. The lawsuit cites the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision giving corporations the right to make unlimited campaign ads—often without disclosing the donors who funded the ads.

James Bopp Jr.

James Bopp Jr., the attorney who brought that Citizens United case, is representing the state GOP in this new lawsuit. Bopp is spearheading a national strategy to end campaign finance and disclosure laws.

Game Plan

In a recent New York Times story, Bopp described the strategy in this way: “We had a 10-year plan to take all this down… And if we do it right, I think we can pretty well dismantle the entire regulatory regime that is called campaign finance law.”

According to Bloomberg, “Of 31 lawsuits challenging campaign finance regulations tracked by the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center, Bopp filed 21, including a case that led to creation of independent groups that raise unlimited sums of money to run political ads.”

This was before the New Mexico lawsuit.

The New Mexico contribution limits law, which went into effect immediately after the 2010 elections, restricts individuals or entities from donating more than $2,300 to a non-statewide candidate in an election, or $5,000 to a statewide candidate, a political party or political action committee. Primaries and general elections are as treated as separate elections.

The law also bars political parties or PACs from donating more than $5,000 to an individual candidate in any given election.

Prior to passage of the law, New Mexico was one of the five remaining states that had resisted the imposing limits on campaign contributions.

A statement released by the state Republican Party expressed optimism that the suit will overturn the limits law. “We are confident that we will be successful in this case, as cases from around the country have found in favor of protection of freedom of speech, including a recent United States Supreme Court decision.”

If the New Mexico contribution limits should be struck down, what would the future campaign finance landscape look like? Recent actions by plaintiffs’ attorney Bopp may offer a clue to what he might be envisioning.

In May of this year, Bopp filed filed registration papers with the Federal Election Commission to form the Republican Super PAC Inc. Dubbed the “Super-Duper PAC” in a Mother Jones story, the PAC’s objective was to recruit candidates who would then be able to solicit unlimited funds for the Super-PAC — which could then spend money promoting that candidate.

The FEC quickly shot that idea down a month later in a unanimous ruling saying that while candidates may ask donors to give to the Super-PAC, they cannot ask for more than $5,000. One FEC commissioner called Bopp’s plan, “a bridge too far.”

But Bopp countered that the FEC’s ruling was “meaningless.”

If Bopp does succeed in bringing down New Mexico’s contribution limits law, it would certainly be an ironic fate for a reform that, when it was passed, garnered broad support from Republicans along with Democrats in the legislature.

Sponsored by Sen. Dede Feldman (D-Abq.) in 2009, it passed the state Senate on a 40-1 vote with only Sen. Rod Adair (R-Roswell), a plaintiff on the today’s suit, the only dissenting vote. The bill then breezed though the House on a 49-17 vote with 8 Republicans in support, including the soon to become Albuquerque Mayor, R.J. Berry.

Joining the state Republican Party in the lawsuit are the county Republican Parties from Bernalillo and Dona Ana County, Adair, Rep. Conrad James (R-Albuquerque), former New Mexico Republican Party chair Harvey Yates, Santa Fe resident Howard James Bohlander, and Hobbs resident Mark Veteto. New Mexico Turn Around, a political committee with ties to the state Republican Party and the Rio Grande Foundation, and the New Mexicans for Economic Recovery PAC are also plaintiffs on the suit.

One lawmaker who  reacted quickly to news of the lawsuit was Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe). He tweeted, “Citizens United not enough? GOP lawsuit wants to take NM back to ‘wild west’ days where political parties have no campaign limits . . . Wow.”

Wirth might be referring to a January 2009 Wall Street Journal story that was much commented upon at the time the Feldman bill was being debated.  The story excoriated New Mexico for being one of just a handful of states with no campaign contribution limits. It was entitled, “New Mexico’s Political Wild West.”