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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The gusher of outside money into Montana's Senate race was part of a larger pattern. Nationally, in addition to the $5.1 billion spent by candidates and parties, almost 700 outside spending groups dumped more than $1 billion into federal elections in the 2012 cycle, FEC filings show.

Of that, about $322 million was dark money, most of it from 153 social welfare nonprofits, groups that could spend money on politics as long as social welfare — not politics — was their primary purpose.

Relating those numbers to previous elections is a largely pointless exercise, akin to comparing statistics from baseball and lacrosse. The Citizens United ruling changed the game, opening the door to unlimited corporate donations to super PACs and to a new breed of more politically active nonprofits.

"Instead of being in a boxing match in a ring, you're in a dark alley being hit by four or five people, and you don't know who they are," said Michael Sargeant, the executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which helps Democrats run for state offices.

Some of the players in the 2012 cycle were longtime activist organizations such as the liberal Sierra Club and the conservative National Right to Life Committee, with clear social welfare missions and only a limited amount of political spending. Other dark money groups were juggernauts like Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity, founded years ago by conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, which crank up their fundraising during election years and devote more money to election ads than other nonprofits.

Finding out about some of the less prominent nonprofits was no easy feat. Many were formed out of post-office boxes or law firms. On their applications to the Internal Revenue Service, they minimized or even denied any political activity.

Documents for pop-up nonprofits like the conservative America Is Not Stupid and A Better America Now, both of which formed in 2011, led back to a Florida law firm that offered no explanations. The Citizens for Strength and Security Action Fund, a liberal pop-up group that spent millions on elections in 2010, closed down in 2011. In its place came a new group: the Citizens for Strength and Security Fund, which earlier this year bought almost $900,000 in ads attacking Rehberg and the Republican Senate candidate in New Mexico.

Groups picked names that seemed designed to confuse: Patriot Majority USA is liberal. Patriotic Veterans is conservative. Common Sense Issues backed conservatives. Common Sense Movement backed a Democrat.

As in the 2010 midterms, the dark money spent in 2012 had a partisan tilt. Conservative groups accounted for about 84 percent of the spending reported to the FEC — mainly through Crossroads GPS, Americans for Prosperity and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Liberal groups spent 12 percent of the dark money. Nonpartisan groups made up the rest.

Despite shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars, conservatives lost big. Only about 14 percent of conservative dark money went to support winners.

Still, campaign-finance reformers say it's a mistake to minimize the influence of this money.

"What these donors were buying was access and influence, not only to the candidates but to the party machine," said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center. "And they will get that access. On the Republican side, you have people lining up to kiss the ring of (billionaire donor) Sheldon Adelson. And on the Democratic side, you have even people critical of these groups meeting with the funders of these groups. This money is not going away."

Even though liberal groups spent far less than conservative ones, they had a higher success rate. About 70 percent backed winning candidates.

Some Democrats have shown distaste for the dark-money arts, pushing for more transparency. But liberal strategists are preparing to ramp up their efforts before the next election, unless the IRS, Congress or the courts change the rules.

"We probably have a lot less comfort with some of the existing rules that allow for the Koch brothers to write unlimited checks to these groups," said Navin Nayak, the senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters, a liberal social welfare nonprofit for more than 40 years. "But as long as these are the rules, we're certainly going do our best to make sure we're competitive and that our candidates have a shot at winning. We're certainly not going to cede the playing field to the Koch brothers."

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