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GOP-tied PACs back Democrat for state land commissioner

June 3, 2018 GMT

A few conservative political action committees have a message for Democrats.

That’s right. Democrats.

At least three groups linked to Republicans are taking sides in the Democratic Party primary election for state land commissioner, attacking one candidate — Garrett VeneKlasen — and promoting another — state Sen. George Muñoz.

The push may be one of the stranger twists of the election season, with a PAC connected to prominent GOP lawmakers and the oil industry calling on voters to nominate a “lifelong Democrat” and a candidate who is “pro-environment.”

The entry of Republican groups into the Democratic primary will nonetheless add to what already has been an intense internecine race. VeneKlasen’s supporters have argued Muñoz is too conservative. And backers of another Democrat in the race, state Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, have bashed VeneKlasen for having been a Republican until just a few years ago.

It might all be too much to keep straight in the contest for what is usually a low-key office. But the land commissioner has broad powers over 9 million surface acres of state land, swathes of grazing areas and a lucrative piece of New Mexico’s oil production, landing the race in the sights of special interests on both sides.

One of the groups, the NM Prosperity PAC, is circulating a mailer promoting Muñoz’s record as a Democratic legislator representing Gallup, specifically on education.

The mailer’s message is fairly banal.

What is surprising is the source.

The group raised $52,500 over the past few weeks from two oil companies, mostly Mack Energy Corp.

The PAC’s treasurer is listed as Colin Hunter, once an aide to former Republican U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson and an attorney at a law firm run by Mickey Barnett, a lobbyist and former member of the Republican National Committee.

And the mailers appear to have been produced by McCleskey Media Strategies, the firm of a top adviser to Gov. Susana Martinez, Jay McCleskey.

No one at Barnett and Hunter’s firm responded to a message seeking comment.

In all, the group reported spending $80,495 between May 8 and May 29, the latest campaign finance reporting period.

Meanwhile, a second group, the New Mexicans for Freedom PAC, has paid for robocalls attacking VeneKlasen with a rough audio clip of the candidate.

“So, yes, I was a Republican, and the Republican Party branded me as a watermelon,” VeneKlasen is heard saying. “Because I was a green environmentalist on the outside and a communist on the inside.”

The audio is real.

VeneKlasen’s campaign says it was an instance of the candidate characterizing how some conservatives view him.

New Mexicans for Freedom lists its address as property owned by state Sen. Cliff Pirtle, a Republican from Roswell.

Pirtle said he helps the group but does not run it.

And the organization did not give much away in a vague statement.

“We believe in preserving New Mexico by maintaining our traditional way of life,” the group said in an email. “New Mexico is rich in natural resources, but richest in its people. We need to ensure our next land commissioner will protect our New Mexico way of life.”

The group appears to have raised most of its money from Republican politicians and farmers, as well as from the oil and gas industry.

Meanwhile, a third group, the New Mexico Strong PAC, reported taking in $224,250 from Chevron and $50,000 from Mack Energy over the past few weeks, then using the funds for ads and mailers supporting Muñoz and two Democratic legislators — state Reps. Carl Trujillo and Debbie Rodella.

The group’s treasurer, based in Austin, Texas, has been connected in the past to several Republican-aligned PACs.

To be sure, there is a Republican running for land commissioner.

Public Regulation Commissioner Pat Lyons is running for the post as incumbent Aubrey Dunn campaigns for the U.S. Senate as a Libertarian.

And the Republican PACs are not the only ones spending big in the race.

A PAC linked to Conservation Voters has launched a major ad campaign supporting VeneKlasen, who is executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, and knocking Muñoz.

While he was a Republican until a few years ago, VeneKlasen has campaigned on boosting renewable energy production, expanding access to state lands and taking a tough line against the oil and gas industry. This has won VeneKlasen, who had a narrow lead in a recent poll by the Albuquerque Journal, the support of U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and conservation groups such as the Sierra Club.

Still, supporters of Garcia Richard have blasted him as too conservative on issues such as protecting wildlife, pointing to his advocacy on behalf of hunters. Garcia Richard has made wildlife protection a key part of her campaign.

Meanwhile, Conservation Voters’ PAC has painted Muñoz as too conservative, noting his high marks from the National Rifle Association.

“It’s a dead heat. We knew it would be,” said Muñoz, a senator since 2009 who also has run on promises of expanding renewable energy production.

When asked about the two Republican PACs supporting him, he quipped: “Maybe they’re upset Garrett left the Republican Party.”

“I have no idea. … It’s puzzling to me,” added Muñoz, who has raised money from the oil industry but also loaned himself money to run for land commissioner. “I’m just out here on my own.”

Muñoz’s campaign said it had nothing to do with the ads, which appear to be what are known as independent expenditures — undertaken by a PAC and not coordinated with a campaign.

VeneKlasen’s campaign argued, however, that the oil industry is trying to protect its interests by wading into the Democratic primary.

“It says a lot that now TWO Republican outside groups, funded by big oil and gas companies, have gotten involved to try and stop our movement to transform the Land Office,” VeneKlasen said in a statement.

Follow Andrew Oxford on Twitter @andrewboxford.