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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By the time Tester and Rehberg started buying TV ads, outside groups had been defining the race for a year.

Rehberg, 57, a six-term congressman and rancher often pictured wearing a cowboy hat and a plaid shirt, was portrayed as voting five times to increase his pay and charging an SUV to taxpayers. Tester, 56, a farmer with a flat top, was dinged for voting with Obama 95 percent of the time.

Tester's campaign went up with ads in March, mainly to counter the outside messages.

"The original plans were going up 60 or 90 days later than that," Tester said. "But it was important...We had to remind people of who I am."

His early ads highlighted his Montana roots, depicting him riding a combine on his farm and packing up Montana beef to carry back to Washington.

Rehberg had less money, so his earliest TV ads, which mainly attacked Tester, went up in May.

Neither Rehberg nor anyone from his media staff responded to requests for an interview on his views on campaign finance. In the past, he has said he supports theCitizens United ruling.

Meanwhile, conservative groups bought TV ads that hit at Tester but stopped just short of telling people how to vote. For instance, the conservative 60 Plus Association spent almost $500,000 buying TV ads featuring crooner Pat Boone criticizing Tester over the health care law. None of that was reported to the FEC.

Over the summer, the Concerned Women for America's legislative committee, Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce all weighed in. The TV spots were overwhelmingly negative, and many of them were cookie-cutter ads, similar to those that ran in other states against Democrats.

Liberal groups bought TV ads, too, but that was only part of their game plan. They spent their dark money on retail politics, hitting the streets and knocking on doors.

In January, the League of Conservation Voters set up two offices in Montana — one in Missoula and one in Billings. It canvassed voters and hired a full-time organizer, reaching out to 28,000 sporadic voters to urge them to vote early by mail.

Lindsay Love, the spokeswoman at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana, another nonprofit that doesn't report its donors for election spending, said the group targeted 41,000 female voters. More than 1,500 people ended up knocking on 28,500 doors and making 162,000 phone calls, she said. The group sent out about 470,000 pieces of mail.

"It's hard to unpack this," Parker said. "But it's fascinating to look at groups like the League, unions and Planned Parenthood. By and large, they did phones, canvassing, mail, very little TV. One of the best ways to get out the vote is personalized contact."

Many liberal groups active in Montana, including Montana Hunters and Anglers, were connected through Hilltop Public Solutions, a Beltway consulting firm.

Barrett Kaiser, a former aide to Montana's other Democratic senator, Max Baucus, is a partner at Hilltop and runs its office in Billings. The Hilltop website notes that Kaiser helped with Tester's upset Senate win in 2006. Kaiser is also a good friend of Messina, the manager of Obama's 2012 campaign, who also once worked for Baucus.

Kaiser was on the board of the Montana Hunters and Anglers dark money group. Another Hilltop employee in Billings served as the treasurer for the Montana Hunters and Anglers super PAC.

Hilltop partners in Washington also helped run two other dark money groups that spent money on the Montana race: the Citizens for Strength and Security Fund and thePartnership to Protect Medicare.

The League of Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana paid management fees to Hilltop.

No one from Hilltop returned calls, but Nayak and Love said they worked with Hilltop independently of other groups.

Outside groups are allowed to coordinate with each other or use the same consultants — they're just not allowed to coordinate with a candidate. By working together, groups can disguise who is actually behind an ad.

In early July, for instance, the League of Conservation Voters gave $410,000 to the Montana Hunters and Anglers super PAC — almost all the money the group raised as of that date.

When the super PAC spent the money on TV ads against Rehberg later that month, the spots were paid for by what appeared to be an organization of Montana hunters, not some Washington-based conservationist group. Nayak said that was not a coincidence.

"We figured having a local brand like that and partnering with them on local issues made more sense than having a D.C. brand," he said.

Nayak said the League did not donate money for the later ads pushing Cox, the libertarian.

It's not clear where that money came from. The dark money side of Montana Hunters and Anglers paid for the radio ads. The super PAC bought the TV ads and had to disclose its donors, but FEC filings show its money came mainly from two other super PACs, which in turn reported getting most of their money from unions and dark money groups, including the League.

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