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Outside spending on U.S. Senate race surpasses $10M – but is it less than expected?

Posted at 3:17 PM, Aug 03, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-09 14:12:14-04

This is the second installment of a two-part series on money and advertising in Montana’s U.S. Senate race.

As expected, outside political groups are spending big money on Montana’s U.S. Senate race to help their chosen candidate, surpassing $10 million this month for the year.

But the rate of spending may be lagging behind that of the last marquee U.S. Senate race in Montana, when Democratic Sen. Jon Tester defeated the state’s Republican congressman, Denny Rehberg in 2012.

“You had $25 million spent by outside groups in 2012 alone,” said David Parker, Montana State political scientist and MTN News analyst. “So I think right now this is a little bit behind the curve. … Now, that could of course pick up as we get closer to the election.”

Parker says national Republicans and their allies have many U.S. Senate races where they believe they can pick off a Democratic seat, and that Montana may not be as high on the list as other opportunities.

“These outside groups are very strategic in their thinking,” he told MTN News this week. “I think … there are some other places that they feel a bit more confident about.”

Tester, who’s running for a third term against Republican Matt Rosendale and Libertarian Rick Breckenridge, has sometimes railed against “dark money” or “billionaire-backed super PACs” aligned against him.

But so far, independent campaign spending on the race by various groups has benefited Tester just as much as his competitors, if not more.

Here’s a rundown on this spending so far in the race, by political-action committees, or PACs, and other groups:

  • Through this week, independent groups have spent or committed to spending at least $10.4 million this year on advertising and other actions to boost either Tester or Rosendale.
  • About $5.4 million has been spent by PACs supporting Rosendale – although $3.6 million of that money was spent during the primary election, helping Rosendale beat three other candidates to win the GOP nomination.
  • About $5 million has been spent by groups helping Tester this year. However, the Senate Majority PAC, which is headed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, plans to spend millions more after Labor Day to help Tester.

Rosendale’s campaign says the Senate Majority PAC has reserved an additional $5.4 million in TV time in Montana after Labor Day; the PAC itself says only that it plans to spend “seven figures” aiding Tester later this season. It has already spent $1.3 million on ads bashing Rosendale or lauding Tester.

Several other PACs also spent nearly $2 million last year promoting Tester.

Tester also has the clear financial advantage in money raised by the candidates’ respective campaigns. Through June, his campaign had raised $14.25 million, or seven times that of Rosendale, and had almost 10 times the money still remaining in his campaign account ($6.1 million).

The main outside groups aiding Rosendale include Club for Growth Action, a free-market group; Restoration PAC and Americas PAC, which are bankrolled primarily by Chicago billionaire Richard Uihlein; and the Senate Reform Fund, a group which appears to have been formed primarily to oppose Tester.

Its treasurer is Mark Meckler, a conservative activist and co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, and it has yet to report its funding sources.

Together, these four groups have spent $4.8 million on ads and other actions promoting Rosendale or attacking his opponents.

In addition to the Senate Majority PAC, other groups helping Tester include End Citizens United, a campaign-finance reform group that began spending $2 million this week; the League of Conservation Voters, a national environmental group, which has spent about $1 million; and VoteVets, which pitched in $350,000 in May.

Rosendale’s campaign has labeled Tester a hypocrite for benefiting from outside-group spending, while criticizing it.

“If Tester truly cared about money in politics, he would demand his liberal out-of-state friends stay out of Montana,” the Rosendale campaign said in a statement. “Instead, he will continue to do what he’s best at, saying one thing and doing another.”

Tester’s campaign notes that he is the only candidate in the race who supports doing something to shed more light on or limit campaign spending – while Rosendale, as a Montana state senator, voted against Montana’s landmark 2015 bill to force disclosure of so-called “dark money.”  

“(Rosendale’s) dark-money allies are pouring in millions of dollars into this race to try to keep the status quo, where dark money flows freely and accountability is drowned out by hidden donors,” the Tester campaign said.