In Montana, Dark Money Helped Democrats Hold a Key Senate Seat

  • Jon Tester and Denny Rehberg in their June debate, when the two were locked in a tight race for a Montana senate seat.

    Kurt Wilson, Missoulian
 

In the waning days of Montana's hotly contested Senate race, a small outfit called Montana Hunters and Anglers, launched by liberal activists, tried something drastic.It didn't buy ads supporting the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Jon Tester. Instead, it put up radio and TV commercials that urged voters to choose the third-party candidate, libertarian DanCox, describing Cox as the "real conservative" or the "true conservative."

Where did the group's money come from? Nobody knows.

The pro-Cox ads were part of a national pattern in which groups that did not disclose their donors, including social welfare nonprofits and trade associations, played a larger role than ever before in trying to sway U.S. elections. Throughout the 2012 election, ProPublica has focused on the growing importance of this so-called dark money in national and local races.

Such spending played a greater role in the Montana Senate race than almost any other. With control of the U.S. Senate potentially at stake, candidates, parties and independent groups spent more than $51 million on this contest, all to win over fewer than 500,000 voters. That's twice as much as was spent when Tester was elected in 2006.

Almost one quarter of that was dark money, donated secretly to nonprofits.

"It just seems so out of place here," said Democrat Brian Schweitzer, the governor of Montana who leaves office at the end of this year. "About one hundred dollars spent for every person who cast a vote. Pretty spectacular, huh? And most of it, we don't have any idea where it came from. Day after the election, they closed up shop and disappeared into the dark."

Political insiders say the Montana Senate race provided a particularly telling glimpse at how campaigns are run in the no-holds-barred climate created by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, giving a real-world counterpoint to the court's assertion that voters could learn all they needed to know about campaign funding from disclosure.

In many ways, Montana was a microcosm of how outside spending worked nationally, but it also points to the future. Candidates will be forced to start raising money earlier to compete in an arms race with outside groups. Voters will be bombarded with TV ads, mailers and phone calls. And then on Election Day, they will be largely left in the dark, unable to determine who's behind which message.

All told, 64 outside groups poured $21 million into the Montana Senate election, almost as much as the candidates. Party committees spent another $8.9 million on the race.

The groups started spending money a year before either candidate put up a TV ad, defining the issues and marginalizing the role of political parties. In a state where ads were cheap, they took to the airwaves. More TV commercials ran in the Montana race between June and the election than in any other Senate contest nationwide.

The Montana Senate race also shows how liberal groups have learned to play the outside money game — despite griping by Democratic officials about the influence of such organizations.

Liberal outside groups spent $10.2 million on the race, almost as much as conservatives. Conservatives spent almost twice as much from anonymous donors, but the $4.2 million in dark money that liberal groups pumped into Montana significantly outstripped the left's spending in many other races nationwide.

As in other key states, conservative groups devoted the bulk of their money in Montana to TV and radio ads. But sometimes the ads came across as generic and missed their mark.

Liberal groups set up field offices, knocked on doors, featured "Montana" in their names or put horses in their TV ads. Many of them, including Montana Hunters and Anglers, were tied to a consultancy firm where a good friend of Jim Messina, President Barack Obama's campaign manager, is a partner.

The end result? Tester beat Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg by a narrow margin. And the libertarian Cox, who had so little money he didn't even have to report to federal election authorities, picked up more votes than any other libertarian in a competitive race on the Montana ballot.

Montana Republicans blamed Montana Hunters and Anglers, made up of a super PAC and a sister dark money nonprofit, for tipping the race. Even though super PACs have to report their donors, the Montana Hunters and Anglers super PAC functioned almost like a dark money group. Records show its major donors included an environmentalist group that didn't report its donors and two super PACs that in turn raised the bulk of their money from the environmentalist group, other dark money groups and unions.

"Part of what's frustrating to me is I look at Montana Hunters and Anglers and say, 'That is not fair,'" said Bowen Greenwood, executive director for the Montana Republican Party. "I am a hunter. I know plenty of hunters. And Montana hunters don't have their positions. It would be fairer if it was called Montana Environmental Activists. That would change the effect of their ads."

Cox and Tester deny the group's efforts swung the race. No one from Montana Hunters and Anglers returned calls for comment.

Tester, who's argued that all groups spending on elections should disclose their donors and also pushed against super PACs, said he wasn't familiar with any of the outside groups running ads. By law, candidates are not allowed to coordinate with outside spending groups, which are supposed to be independent.

Despite his ambivalence, he said he was glad the outside groups jumped in.

"If we wouldn't have had folks come in on our side, it would have been much tougher to keep a message out there," Tester said. "We had no control over what they were saying. But by the same token, I think probably in the end if you look at it, they were helpful."

Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Jan 08, 2013 12:47 PM

Being in Montana, knowing some of the players in this "Dark Money" "sportsmen's" group and having been contacted directly by the reporter who did the investigation for some background info, I certainly appreciate that HCN has highlighted this article.

Additional information about the players behind “Montana Hunters and Anglers Action” is below. The source for this first batch of info is this article: http://helenair.com/news/st[…]11e0-b794-001cc4c002e0.html

“Land Tawney of Missoula, president of the newly formed group…..Tawney, a senior manager for the National Wildlife Federation , wouldn’t reveal the cost of the buy, but sources told the Lee Newspapers State Bureau that it’s between $200,000 and $250,000….In addition to Tawney, its officers include Democratic state Sen. Kendall Van Dyk of Billings; Barrett Kaiser, a Billings communications consultant and former aide to U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.; and George Cooper, a senior vice president for a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm and former news producer for CNN.”

I myself 100% oppose the use of secret, anonymous dark money to influence our democratic elections no matter who’s spending it and what they are spending it on. One would think that the vast majority of Montanans and Americans feel the same way. Again, this is about much more than D’s vs R’s….this is about the future of democracy.

Last week the National Wildlife Federation, Montana Hunters and Anglers engaged in a new round of censorship, removal of comments and banning on their social media sites (I have screen shots of the pages if anyone wants proof) in an attempt prevent the general public from knowing about their secret, anonymous, dark money ways.

I believe much of this censorship and removal of substantive comments is coming from Land Tawney of NWF/Montana Hunters and Anglers. I've also been censored and banned by a social media site called "Sportsmen for Montana" and "Hellgate Hunters and Angler's Bully Pulpit Blog" and I believe that censorship and banning was done by Tawney and a person named Ben Lamb. Both Tawney and Lamb serve on Senator Tester's Sportsmen's Caucus advisory group (Source: http://www.tester.senate.gov/?p=press_release&id=1333) and have been big supporters of Senator Tester for the past 6 years.

And while I'm bringing up censorship and banning on social media sites for attempting to have substantive discussions about things like Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, or the provision in Tester's "Sportsmen's" bill, which would have prevented the EPA from ever studying or regulating the use of lead in ammo and fishing tackle, I should point out that the folks at Montana Wilderness Association have also censored and removed my comments and banned me from their site for trying to discuss issues.

As anyone can clearly see from the links below, if you simply highlight this "Dark Money" article, Montana Hunters and Anglers will censor and remove your comments and forever ban you from commenting again. Why do you think that is? SOURCE: http://ncfp.files.wordpress.com/[…]/mt_hunters_anglers_censored.png.

However, if you want to go onto the Montana Hunters and Anglers social media sites and use this type of foul language highlighted below, Montana Hunters and Anglers will do absolutely nothing to censor and remove this type of language or ban a future commenter:

"Burns was a worthless f#@k whose first campaign was financed corruptly, he wh*#ed himself....he was a s*&t-kickin' inbred racist scum." Or this: "The problem is we keep a lying jac#^ss like Tester...I can hear those lying piece of crap bubble head bleach blondes now!!" Or this: "Tester should be rotting in a jail somewhere." SOURCE: http://ncfp.files.wordpress[…]_anglers_not_censored1.png.

Ironically, I was once a member of Hellgate Hunters and Anglers and while Land Tawney and Montana Hunters and Anglers censors and bans me from their social media site, they also sent me a snail mail invitation to become a member of MT Hunters and Anglers on Saturday. So, suffice to say this secret, Dark Money group is frantically trying to scramble and find "members" so that some of the heat is taken away from their Dark Money ways.

Yep, that’s how some of these self-professed, well-funded "Sportsmen” groups roll. Like I said, this really isn't anything personal as much as it is about the future of democracy in America. Bottom Line: Secret, Dark Money has no place in American democracy. Thanks.
Frank Smith
Frank Smith
Jan 08, 2013 01:03 PM
Republican invented this game of supporting third party candidates to siphon votes from Democrats. In Virgina, "Gail for Rail" from a bogus Green party has run in multiple elections, nearly reversing Democratic victories. In Pennsylvania, right wing Republican radicals funded an effort by Carl Romanelli and the Luzerne County Green Party to dilute votes for anti-choice Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bob Casey. Years ago, the New Mexico Republicans offered to fund a Green Party congressional campaign, but were turned down.

We need to listen to Montana voters and those in the rest of the country and get Citizen United overturned through a Constitional amendment. The "Gang of Five" on the court didn't really believe that money was speech. The question was, quoting Humpty Dumpty, "Who will be master? That's all."

Hoist on their own petard, they are.
Jerry Black
Jerry Black
Jan 08, 2013 01:46 PM
Matthew......doesn't surprise me at all that these groups censor the truth...thanks for your persistence
Philip Huang
Philip Huang
Jan 08, 2013 03:02 PM
You buried the lead: "Conservatives spent almost twice as much from anonymous donors...."
Doug Smith
Doug Smith Subscriber
Jan 08, 2013 06:30 PM
Rehberg lost - it might have been ugly, but thank god, and the good citizens of Montana thatRehberg won't be a United States Senator for the next six years.
Margaret Boardman
Margaret Boardman
Jan 09, 2013 12:54 AM
Rehberg I mean Long Nose is not a stranger to Dark Money only his comes from billionaires wanting to buy our country.

Margaret Boardman
Margaret Boardman
Jan 09, 2013 12:56 AM
I would like to congratulate those small group of activists Good job
Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Jan 09, 2013 09:01 AM
@ Philip: And you buried what came next...."but the $4.2 million in dark money that liberal groups pumped into Montana significantly outstripped the left's spending in many other races nationwide."

Can't we just agree that secret, Dark Money is a huge threat to our democracy and that we all should oppose it no matter what? The rationale "Well, the GOP does it too" really doesn't hold much water, and comes across as lacking principle and ethics. Sort of like, "Do as we say, not as we do."
Michael McKinnon
Michael McKinnon
Jan 09, 2013 04:23 PM
We can agree on that Matthew, but I notice that you didn't mention anything about the right wing groups. As for standing by and letting the GOP do as they please and take away the power of the 1 person-1 vote concept, you would have to be pretty naive or politically inept to do that. You have to fight fire with fire. You know the old saying: First they came for the gays and I did nothing, then they came for the etc. etc..
Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Jan 09, 2013 05:21 PM
Michael: How do we overturn Citizens United or ban secret, Dark Money in our elections using your approach? Perhaps, to use your words, it's "pretty naive" to think Citizens United will be overturned, or secret Dark Money will be banned, if we "fight fire with fire" (or "fight secret, Dark Money with secret, Dark Money" as the case might be) as you appear to be advocating. Or perhaps you don't want to see this secret, Dark Money out of our elections? Of course, I'm opposed to the GOP using this secret, Dark Money. I thought my statement, Bottom Line: Secret, Dark Money has no place in American democracy, in previous comment pretty much covered that. Thanks.
Kurt Angersbach
Kurt Angersbach
Jan 21, 2013 01:02 PM
From this story and others in the media, it appears that the initial question asked of candidates will shift even further from the germane (“Can they act as responsible representatives of the people?”) to the discouraging (“Can they attract the kind of funding they’ll need to survive a campaign?”).

Reconsideration of the campaign finance system is clearly necessary. I want my representatives to represent the voters, not the fundraisers.

Meanwhile, you can bet that everyone is simply recalibrating for the 2014 race: If $51 million seemed high for a contest featuring Montana’s newest senator, just imagine how much will be spent in the race for Max Baucus’s seat.

Kurt Angersbach / Westernlabs