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Behind the Curtain

By Brooks Johnson

Politically minded Montanns should be excited for 2014 — especially if they prefer not to know the donors behind the impending flood of campaign ads.

When the race to replace longtime Democratic Sen. Max Baucus heats up in 2014, the voices of anonymous donors, conservative and liberal, will again share the airwaves with candidates and their political action committees. And it won’t be pretty, said Ed Bender, executive director of the Helena-based National Institute on Money in State Politics.

“There was so much crap out there last cycle,” Bender said. “I know people that turned off their TV after getting sick of watching the same thing. The quality went out the window.”

In 2012, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester won re-election over Republican challenger Denny Rehberg, but not before American Tradition Partnership, Montana Hunters and Anglers Action, Crossroads GPS, and Americans for Prosperity had their say.

Exactly who was paying for those political media campaigns was impossible to know. The groups were formed as 501(c)(4) nonprofits — social welfare issue-advocacy organizations that aren’t required to turn over data on donors.

It was the first presidential election following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, and newly formed SuperPACs, now able to accept and spend an unlimited amount of
money as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates, were eager to test the waters.

In the Tester vs. Rehberg race alone, an estimated $12 million of dark money was spent.

“Independent spending has long been a factor in elections. What’s new is the secrecy,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that runs the campaign finance site open-secrets.org.

She predicts the influence of dark money will diversify and grow.

“But it will be fine-tuned as groups and donors look for a better return on their investments,” she said.

Bender expects dark money to come into play as quickly as in the 2012 election.

“I think you’re going to see independent spending ramp up early,” he said.

The only major Montana-wide races in 2014 are for the House and Senate, so money directed toward in-state contenders won’t see the outside push it had in 2012, with the attorney general and state Supreme Court races. Then again, Krumholz expects the Baucus race to become a bonanza for spenders.

“As all Montanans know, this is an open seat in a tight senate at a contentious time.”

Brooks Johnson graduated from the University of Montana’s School of Journalism in 2013. A former Dow Jones News Fund intern, he works as a copy editor at the Idaho Falls Post Register and is the online editor for Montana Headwall.