By Kim Barker and Justin Elliott, ProPublica
Dark money groups flooded Albuquerque's airwaves in August, aiming to sway a hotly contested U.S. Senate race by making more than half the political ad buys on top TV stations.
That fact, gleaned through a review of TV station political ad records now available in our Free the Files news application, highlights the role that unlimited anonymous money is playing in this year's election.
Our analysis of a month of ad orders in the Senate race between Republican Heather Wilson and Democrat Rep. Martin Heinrich is possible because of a new Federal Communications Commission rule requiring major-market affiliates of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC to upload political ad files to a government website.
In statements to ProPublica, the campaigns of Heinrich and Wilson blamed each other for relying on dark money.
Wilson campaign spokesman Chris Sanchez accused "environmental extremists" of pouring money "into New Mexico to falsely attack Heather Wilson because they know her opponent, Congressman Heinrich, supports their radical agenda."
Heinrich campaign spokeswoman Whitney Potter accused "corporate special interest groups" of spending millions in secret money to support Wilson "because they know she will support their misplaced priorities that put the wealthy special interests ahead of middle-class families in New Mexico."
The Senate race has attracted national attention because, with incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman retiring, it is a rare open seat. The race was considered tight earlier this year. After a summer of heavy spending by outside groups on both sides, Heinrich is now the favorite.
In August, while Wilson's campaign contracted to spend about $512,000 on ads in Albuquerque, four prominent conservative groups booked almost $658,000 of ads attacking Heinrich, station records show.
That means about 56 percent of the ad orders on the Republican side came from groups that don't disclose their donors, including Americans for Prosperity, founded by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, and Crossroads GPS, launched by GOP strategist Karl Rove. Campaigns are required to report their donors.
Heinrich, who as a congressman has called for donor disclosure and campaign-finance reform, booked an estimated $246,000 worth of ads in August. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which also reports its donors, chimed in with another $74,000.
But nonprofits on the Democratic side spent an additional $288,000 on ads criticizing Wilson, about 47 percent of the money spent on ads overall.
The liberal dark money groups included a coalition of environmental organizations and the Citizens for Strength and Security Fund, which appears to be a successor to a nonprofit active in the 2010 election.
The spending figures are estimates because most of the files uploaded to the FCC website are ad orders. Sometimes, ordered ads never run because of changes in programming. The numbers also are not comprehensive; other TV stations in the Albuquerque market besides affiliates of the major networks do not have to put political ad files online until 2014.
While the FCC files have long been public, they were previously kept on paper at TV stations and were largely inaccessible. The files capture certain spending not reported to the Federal Election Commission and offer a detailed look at how campaigns and outside groups are spending ad dollars, including how many ads have been ordered, which stations are running them, the programs they run on, and how much they cost.