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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As the Montana Senate race approached its climax, as many as five fliers landed in voters' mailboxes daily. Robocalls, supposedly illegal in Montana, interrupted meals. Strangers knocked on doors, promising free pizza for voting. People turned off their TVs, dumped their mail without looking at it and stopped answering the phone.

"My ex and I moved in together, because he had cancer and I took care of him," said Louise McMillin, 51, who lives in the university district in Missoula. "He kept getting polling calls as he was dying. After he died, I kept saying, 'He's dead, could you take his name off the list?' And they said, 'Sure, sure.' And they kept calling."

The race stayed tight. Demand for TV ad slots spiked, so the TV stations started raising their prices. The law required them to charge candidates their lowest rate. But outside groups? They could be hit up for whatever the market would bear.

Rehberg's campaign paid $400 to run a 30-second ad during the show Blue Bloods on Oct. 19 on the CBS affiliate in Great Falls. A week later, Crossroads GPS paid $2,000 for a slot during the same show.

Anything was fair game for the ads. One, from the super PAC Now Or Never, made fun of Tester's buzz cut, then showed his hair growing down to his shoulders, a bizarre sequence apparently designed to signal his ties to Obama. Another ad, from the dark money group America Is Not Stupid, featured a baby with a gravelly voice saying he didn't know what smelled worse, his diaper or Tester.

"By the middle of October, people were just so tuned out and quite frankly disgusted by all these third-party ads," said Ted Dick, the executive director of the Montana Democratic Party. "We found that face-to-face conversations toward the end were most persuasive and effective. That's the lesson we're taking forward."

There are other lessons. Tester said the Montana race made clear that candidates will have to raise money sooner, and go up with TV ads faster. Although uncomfortable with outside money, Tester also said it's just the way things are now, even on the liberal side.

"I mean, look, they did it," he said. "And with as many ads that were against me, I was glad they did. But it needs to be transparent. I mean, everybody's needs to be transparent... It's important to know who's spending money on who so you know why they're doing it. And the way the system is set up right now, there is no transparency. Very little."

Campaign finance reformers agree that knowing who is behind a message helps people assess it.

One example: Two postcards sent to thousands of Montanans just before the election didn't include the required notice saying who paid for them. One said Rehberg had wasted "hundreds of millions of our tax dollars on pork barrel projects," and urged people to vote for Cox, "a champion for fiscal responsibility." The other called Rehberg "the king of pork" and told people to vote for Cox.

Cox said he didn't send them. The bulk-mail permit on the postcards came back to a Las Vegas company called PDQ Printing, according to the U.S. Postal Service. In an online manual, PDQ describes itself as "Nevada's preeminent Union printer." No one there returned phone calls.

Greenwood, the head of the Montana Republican Party, filed a complaint with the FEC over the mailers. The complaint blames liberal groups and says they "engaged in a duplicitous strategy of supporting the libertarian candidate, Dan Cox, in a desperate attempt" to siphon votes from Rehberg.

More than likely, that complaint won't be resolved for years.

Greenwood said he didn't think disclosure was a cure-all. But he also said the current system marginalized political parties.

"Whether it's Montana Hunters and Anglers or (the conservative super PAC) American Crossroads, they are not responsive to the grassroots," Greenwood said. "These are the professionals and the money men who are not responsive at all to people. The system as it is now does not reflect what people want."

Besides picking between Tester and Rehberg, Montanans got a chance in this election to say how they want the system to work. On the ballot was an initiative — largely symbolic in light of recent court decisions — that declared that corporations are not human beings and banned corporate money in politics.

Gov. Schweitzer, a Democrat, and Bertelsen, the former Republican secretary of state, campaigned for the initiative. In a shocker for backers, almost 75 percent of voters supported it.

"I realized it absolutely didn't have any legal basis to do anything dramatic," said Bertelsen, who is 94. "But it's a case of saying, 'We don't like it.' I guess we could just sit down and not say a word. But the Supreme Court — I think they made a mistake. Money isn't speech, anyhow. It's just money."

This story was originally published by ProPublica.

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