Dark money can lighten a candidate’s load.
While incumbent Jon Tester and his Republican challenger Denny Rehberg punched and gouged in a neck-and-neck U.S. Senate race, outsiders spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in dark money in a backhanded promotion of a third-party candidate.
Dark money is a slang term for funds used to pay for an election campaign without disclosure before voters go to the polls. The term arose after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that massive campaign contributions were protected by constitutional protection of free speech.
When Libertarian Dan Cox joined Rehberg and Tester in the Senate race, ranking Republicans cried foul. Some denied the legitimacy of Cox’s candidacy. They insisted he was part of a Democratic plot to siphon conservative votes away from Rehberg.
Plot or no plot, that was the result.
Democratic incumbent Tester won re-election with 49 percent of the vote. Rehberg fell short with 45 percent of the vote. Cox’s 6 percent could have made the difference. Rehberg could have won with Cox’s votes but would have needed nearly all of them.
Was Cox really a conservative or simply a ringer lured into the race by Democrats to split the vote? The charge seems without merit. Cox had ample conservative creds. He earned his bars in true Republican country – Ravalli County. After leading a fight against the local zoning department, he was elected to the Republican Central Committee.
Cox later reported that “seeing behind the curtain” of the Republican Party left him disillusioned, and he decided to run as a Libertarian in 2010 for a seat in the state Senate. He lost the race, but won more than 11 percent of the vote before filing for the U.S. Senate.
The race was too close to call until its last days, when a small outfit called Montana Hunters and Anglers dropped a bomb, a $500,000 purchase of TV ads boosting Cox as the “real” conservative in the race.
The half million burned by the Hunters and Anglers in the waning days of the campaign came from conservation groups. Most were Democrats, mostly liberal.
These are folks who supported Tester. They did not hope to elect Cox, only to wound Rehberg by appealing to voters who fancied themselves gun advocates, small government champions and constitutionalists.
If it seemed like political ads had hijacked your TV set, they probably did. More than 80,000 ads were posted in the Tester-Rehberg-Cox race. By one estimate, the combined campaigns spent $50 million.
Playing with big bucks in Montana made sense. Whether Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or Free Silver Advocates, Montana is a great place to shop for a senator.
Montana’s scant population requires fewer votes to win, fewer boots on the ground, fewer phone banks and campaign offices. And – with cheaper TV and radio ads – Montana campaigns demand less money.
With disclosure either delayed or simply not required under recent Supreme Court guidelines, outside groups can call themselves Hunters and Anglers, Stockmen against Socialism, Teachers for Tester, Goat Farmers for Rehberg or anything that might appeal to a section of Montana’s population.
The super PACs arrive in states with low hanging fruit early, states like Wisconsin, Indiana, Virginia and Montana. The ad concentration is highest in close Senate races. Six of the Senate races attracting dark money had Libertarians running.
The ads start nasty and grow nastier. They make scurrilous charges and the target is forced to react. While campaigns are still in the organizational stage, the attack PACs are setting the agenda. Urgent issues such as jobs, spending, education, infrastructure and Wall Street regulation take a back seat to hot button topics like guns, abortion, military spending.
The political website ProPublica reported a nonprofit called America Is Not Stupid, incorporated last year in Florida, was among those running ads in Montana.
ProPublica said the IRS has no record of the group’s tax-exempt status. Its purported president, Miguel Angel Gutierrez, was not findable, and the lawyer who founded it, Gene Peek, didn’t return phone calls.
Its ad featured a baby in need of a diaper change. The day after the election, the producers of this ad struck camp and disappeared.
The PAC’s mission statement – “America Is Not Stupid” – has not been confirmed. But if anything is certain, dark money will be back in 2014.