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

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Montana has long prided itself on a refusal to be pigeonholed. It's the kind of place that votes Republican for president but elects Democrats to state office. Politicians wear bolo ties, tout their Montana credentials and use words like "hell" and "crap." People introduce themselves by saying what generation Montanan they are.

Consistently, the state fights against any mandate that smacks of Washington meddling, from the federal speed limit to the Citizens United ruling in early 2010, which opened the door to corporations and unions spending unlimited money on independent ads, echoing an earlier court ruling that equated money with free speech.

Before that, Montana had one of the country's toughest campaign finance laws, dating back 100 years, to the time of the copper kings. After one of those kings bribed state lawmakers to back him as senator, the state banned corporate political spending.

Even after Citizens United, the Montana Supreme Court insisted that Montana's legacy of corruption justified keeping the ban. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court squashed that move, saying the Citizens United decision applied to every state in the nation.

By then, dark money groups were already weighing in on Montana's Senate race.

The TV ads started in March 2011, the month after Rehberg announced. The Environmental Defense Action Fund attacked Rehberg for his stance on mercury emissions. The Electronic Payments Coalition praised Tester for his push to delay implementing new debit-card swipe fees.

"The thing that surprised me a little bit was how early they got involved," said David Parker, an associate professor of political science at Montana State University who tracked all 160 TV commercials as part of a book he is writing on the race. "And I think that was critical, because very early on, they were able to establish the contours of this race. The candidates were just busy putting their organizations together and raising money."

Most of the money spent in 2011 on TV ads came from groups that didn't have to report their donors. They also didn't have to report their ads to the Federal Election Commission, because they didn't specifically tell voters to vote for or against a candidate. Instead of saying "Vote for Rehberg," they said things like "Call Jon Tester. Tell him to stop supporting President Barack Obama." Ads like that only have to be reported to the FEC if they air during the two months before an election.

The only way to compile data on such ad spending is by visiting TV stations, which Parker did. ProPublica helped him collect information on the last round of ads.

Parker's data shows that several heavyweight conservative groups entered the fray in mid-2011 to try to cast Tester, whom they saw as vulnerable, as a big spender.

Crossroads GPS, the dark money group launched by GOP strategist Karl Rove, ran two ads in July 2011 similar to those attacking Democrats in other states for supporting excessive spending.

Also that month, a conservative group called Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee ran a sarcastic ad about a new miracle drug called "Spenditol," Washington's answer to America's problems. "Call Sen. Jon Tester," the ad said. "Tell him, stop spending it all." Similar ads ran against Democratic senators up for election in tight races in FloridaNebraska and Ohio.

Several ads run by conservative groups backfired, messing up in ways that irked Montanans.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee — a party committee that reports its donors — ran an ad that appeared to show Tester with all five digits on his left hand. (Tester is well known for having lost three fingers in a childhood accident involving a meat grinder.) The U.S. Chamber of Commerce misspelled Tester's first name. A Montana cable operator yanked a Crossroads ad for claims the operator deemed false.

"The first one that burned me really bad was from the U.S. Chamber," said Verner Bertelsen, a former Republican state legislator and Montana secretary of state. "I thought — you buggers! We don't need you to come in here and tell us who to vote for."

Starting in July 2011, three new liberal dark money groups ran ads. Patriot Majority USA criticized Republicans for allegedly planning to cut Medicare and help to seniors. The Partnership to Protect Medicare praised Tester for opposing Medicare cuts.

And in October, weeks after forming, the dark money side of Montana Hunters and Anglers, Montana Hunters and Anglers Action!, launched its first TV ad, starring Land Tawney, the group's gap-toothed and camouflage-sporting president, who also served on the Sportsmen's Advisory Panel for Tester. At the time, the super PAC side of the group was basically dormant.

The new Hunters ad accused Rehberg of pushing a bill — House bill 1505 — that supposedly would give Washington politicians control of access to public lands in Montana. Rehberg, one of 60 cosponsors, argued the legislation was necessary to help the Department of Homeland Security protect the state from illegal immigrants, drug smugglers and terrorists.

"Nobody in Montana was talking about that bill," Greenwood said. "I've only heard it talked about in campaign ads. And it played a role throughout the election."

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:[…]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: 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:[…]/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 Subscriber
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