Campaign Money Court Battle Hangs Over N.M. Governor Race

By Kenneth P. Doyle

New Mexico’s gubernatorial race could be transformed by a federal court’s decision on campaign money.

Two current U.S. House members—Reps. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) and Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.)—are vying for the Governor’s Mansion. Pearce has more than $1 million in a congressional campaign account registered with the Federal Election Commission, but state authorities say he can use only $11,000 of that total for the race.

Lawyers for Pearce are pressing for an injunction from the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, arguing that state restrictions on his use of federal campaign money violate the U.S. Constitution.

The legal issue has practical consequences for the 2018 race to succeed current New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R). If Pearce can’t use money from his congressional campaign, it would erase a big advantage in a possible general election campaign against Grisham, who had only about $12,000 in cash on hand in her congressional campaign account at the end of June, according to an FEC disclosure report.

Ruling by Secretary of State’s Office

The office of New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, told Pearce’s campaign attorney, William Canfield, in an advisory letter sent in July that Pearce could use no more than $11,000 from his federal campaign account for the state campaign. The letter said transfers from a federal account are restricted by state contribution limits of $5,500 for the 2018 primary election and $5,500 for the general election.

Court filings by lawyers for Pearce have argued the Republican congressman urgently needs to tap his congressional campaign account to gear up his gubernatorial race and that restrictions on his use of the money are unconstitutional.

The request for a preliminary injunction said Oliver’s position on use of federal campaign funds “is contrary to both the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution.” The state is restricting Pearce’s right to free speech and disadvantaging him as federal officeholder compared to state officeholders, lawyers said; state officials are allowed to use money from prior campaigns when running for state office.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bna.com

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