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.

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