Santa Fe New Mexican

Buoyed by wins, state GOP elects new chairwoman

Debbie Weh Maestas is first woman to head party in more than a decade

- By Steve Terrell

ALBUQUERQU­E— New Mexico Republican­s, feeling strong, happy and confident following their best election performanc­e in years, picked a new party leader Saturday.

Debbie Weh Maestas, 42, the daughter of a former party chairman, Allen Weh, was elected chairwoman by a big margin over two challenger­s.

Her election comes asmany are questionin­g the strength of political parties against the increased fundraisin­g prowess of political action committees and independen­t expenditur­e groups.

Maestas, the first female head of the GOP in more than 10 years, replaces John Billingsle­y, who announced three days after the election that he wouldn’t seek a second term. Members of the state’s Republican Central Committee elected Maestas at ameeting at the Hotel Albuquerqu­e.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Maestas promised towork to build party unity and improve the GOP’s social media strategy.

She said she also hopes to expand the appeal of Republican­s. “We need more Hispanics. We need more women. We need more young folks. You know, it’s not just about the typical Republican Party. We must evolve.”

She takes over at an auspicious time for the party after Republican Gov. Susana Martinez handily won re-election and the GOP took over the state House of Representa­tives for the first time in more than 60 years. At the same time, however, the party’s fundraisin­g has dwindled compared to upstart PACs and independen­t groups.

In its most recent report to the Federal Election Commission filed Oct. 15, the state Republican Party reported raising $301,812 in contributi­ons during the 2014 election cycle, compared to $928,342 in the 2002 election cycle. The state Democratic Party has seen a similar decline in fundraisin­g.

By contrast, a GOP-friendly PAC called Advance New Mexico Now— which was headed by Matt Chandler, a political ally of Martinez, and uses the consulting services of Martinez’s political

consultant Jay McCleskey— raised and spent more than $1 million in this year’s election cycle, according to its campaign finance report filed last week.

Martinez’s own political action committee, Susana PAC, which contribute­s to Republican candidates and pays for Martinez’s political travel, has spent more than $500,000 this calendar year.

Fundraisin­g by state party organizati­ons also has been dwarfed by individual candidates’ campaigns, as it has been since at least the era of Gov. Bill Richardson. This year, Martinez spent more than $8.5million on her success- ful re-election effort.

Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at The University of New Mexico, said state political parties across the nation don’t have nearly the power and influence they did in the past.

“The parties are not raising nearly the money they once did, especially the state parties,” she said. That’s largely because political action committees and other independen­t expenditur­e groups have taken up the slack.

Former state GOP chairman Harvey Yates said the state’s campaign finance laws aswell as Supreme Court rulings such as Citizen’s United have given virtually unlimited fundraisin­g powers to PACs and other independen­t expenditur­e groups. That, he said, has “resulted in some PACs, for which no one appears to have much continuing responsibi­lity, being able to raise and expend unlimited funds, while the political parties, which do bear continuing responsibi­lities, have very restrictiv­e fundraisin­g and expenditur­e limits placed on them. Inmy opinion, this is not a propitious circumstan­ce for political parties or for the American electorate.” Yates was party chairman from late 2008 to late 2010.

Former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, a past state Democratic Party chairwoman, agreed. “Parties need a whole new structure. With all the new PACs, there’s no reason [for contributo­rs] to put money into the parties.”

The numbers back up their contention­s.

Maestas said fundraisin­g will be one of her primary goals.

“The party’s goal, their responsibi­lity, is to raise money so thatwe can support our candidates who are out there running,” she said.

The party organizati­on isn’t just to provide the platform to run on, she added. “We’re the back office. We need to be strong, to make sure that candidates, the county chairs havewhat they need.”

In the chairmansh­ip race, Maestas got 247 votes. Political consultant Max Barnett got 110 votes, and Rick Lopez, chairman of the Torrance County GOP, got 87 votes.

Maestas most recently worked on her father’s unsuccessf­ul campaign for U.S. Senate. She alsoworked as president and chief operating officer of her father’s company, CSI Aviation.

Maestas agreed that PACs have become increasing­ly important.

“But for fundraisin­g, though, I think thatwe are missing an element in the middle,” she said. “In campaigns, you have your major donors, you have your donorswho are $5, $10 donors, but you have a whole middle that also believes in the cause [who] can also be donors.”

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Debbie Weh Maestas

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