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Dark Money’s Influence
Like I Was Sayin...
The first debate between Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and his Republican challenger Congressman Denny Rehberg was in June of last year in Big Sky at the Montana Newspaper Association’s annual conference. There, the two men disagreed on just about everything. But one exchange that stood out was Tester’s and Rehberg’s differing opinions on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that greatly relaxed campaign finance rules.

Tester criticized the changes, arguing, “Corporations are not people.” Rehberg disagreed. While noting that there should be full transparency where campaign money comes from, he added, “there should be nothing more free than political free speech.”

As political spending laws were overturned across the country in the wake of the high court’s 2010 ruling, there were similar disagreements in campaigns across the country. Most often the Democratic candidate was more critical of the decision than the Republican. Conventional wisdom was that conservative groups would far outspend liberals and tip elections across the country. What’s ironic is that in Montana the opposite may have been true.

ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization based in New York City, recently published an extensive story on how “dark money” – or groups set up as social welfare nonprofits or trade associations that do not disclose their donors – influenced our U.S. Senate race. And it found that those groups might have been key to Tester’s victory.

Montana’s Senate race polled extremely close during the year leading up to the election, but Libertarian candidate Dan Cox was considered a wildcard. Three polling firms in October found that support for Cox ranged from 2 to 8 percent. Tester supporters hoped Cox would syphon a substantial number of votes from Rehberg. And when the final votes were tallied, Cox earned more than 6 percent, while Tester won reelection by about 3.5 percentage points over Rehberg.

No one can say for sure whether Cox played spoiler. But it is clear that in the closing days of the 2012 campaign Cox received support from third-party groups. And those groups were pulling for Tester.

Montana Hunters and Anglers dropped $500,000 on television ads just weeks before the election. In them, the group criticized Rehberg for supporting House Resolution 1505, which would give the Department of Homeland Security expanded authority on federal lands within 100 miles of the U.S. border. After characterizing the legislation as “Rehberg’s land grab,” the closing frame told viewers: “Vote Cox. The Real Conservative.”

When the spots began airing, Rehberg’s campaign manager, Erik Iverson, told the Billings Gazette, “It’s remarkable that, with a little over a week to go before Election Day, that Jon Tester’s supporters have basically thrown in the towel to get more Montanans to vote for Tester, and they’re now trying to get people to vote for the Libertarian instead of Denny Rehberg.”

Candidates can’t coordinate with outside groups. And Tester said he didn’t know who was running the ads. Cox didn’t know, either, but said he “loved the commercial.”

ProPublica reported that some of Montana Hunters and Anglers’ “major donors included an environmentalist group that didn’t report its donors.” In other words, like similar political organizations that sprung up across the country as the result of Citizens United, no one really knows where its money came from.

Tester was also targeted by millions of dollars funneled through third-party groups. And it’s hard to muster much sympathy for Rehberg, who had a more favorable view of the Supreme Court ruling that set the stage for this free for all.

It’s speculative to declare dark money tipped Montana’s Senate race, but Cox garnered far more votes than any other Libertarian on the ballot.
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