Republican Steve Daines' Saturday announcement of his 2012 bid for Sen. Jon Tester's seat didn't come as much of a surprise. The months leading up to the Bozeman businessman's declaration were rife with speculation on would-be challengers to Montana's junior senator—named by Politico last week as number two on the Republican Party's congressional hit list in the next election—and Daines featured prominently in pundit predictions.
But even before turning rumor into fact last week, Daines became the subject of Montana's first 2012 election controversy. His ties to a Colorado-based conservative nonprofit, Common Sense Issues, prompted the Montana Democratic Party to file a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission earlier this month alleging Daines had accepted "soft money" to fund a shadow campaign against Tester as far back as February.
"He has created an ad featuring himself, with no 'reasonable interpretation other than an appeal to vote for' him and against Senator Tester," the complaint reads. "And he has aired this ad using the soft money raised by Common Sense Issues, Inc.—money raised with no regard to federal limits, source restrictions, or reporting requirements."
The advertisement at the root of the party's complaint showed up on YouTube Feb. 4 and claimed that Sens. Tester and Max Baucus weren't heeding the demands of their constituents in regards to health care reform. Daines' photograph appears in the latter portion of the advertisement, and in an accompanying voiceover Daines describes himself as a fifth-generation Montanan and says Tester and Baucus "turned a deaf ear to us on health care." The advertisement was paid for by Common Sense Issues, which touts itself as a "social welfare, grassroots lobbying organization." Federal law does not require the group, a 501(c)(4), to disclose its donors or donations.
"Mr. Daines clearly had his sights set on running for the U.S. Senate when he ran ads against Max and Jon," says Martin Kidston, spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party. "That's against the law, and we expect accountability."
Common Sense Issues Executive Director Patrick Davis defends the advertisement as an issue-based message similar to other ads the group has funded across the country. He says the nonprofit does not endorse candidates, and it merely called on Daines to provide a local conservative voice for the piece.
"Like we pulled in former Gov. Ed Schafer in North Dakota into our ads, we look for leaders like Ed Schafer, like Steve Daines, who have a public profile and might be a strong voice for the issues we care about," says Davis, political director for the 2004 National Republican Senatorial Committee and founder of a Colorado Springs-based political consulting firm.
Daines, a vice president for Bozeman software company RightNow Techno-logies, says he had no serious intentions of running for public office when he agreed to appear in the ad, though he adds he had casually considered a gubernatorial bid early this year. He admits he's been involved with a number of issue advocacy groups and organizations over the years, but doesn't believe his previous critiques of Tester should have any bearing on his candidacy.
"I can tell you that's a frivolous complaint at best," Daines says. "At worst it's the Democratic Party's attempt to silence a citizen who was trying to speak out against his government."
The Common Sense Issues flap isn't the first time Daines has taken heat from the Montana Democratic Party. In 2007, then-Executive Director Jim Farrell filed a complaint with the state Political Practices Commission over Daines' involvement with the nonprofit Give It Back. Farrell felt the group, which was founded by Daines and called for Gov. Brian Schweitzer to return the state's $1 billion surplus to taxpayers, constituted a "phony front" for a supposed bid by Daines for the governor's office in 2008. At the time Daines defended the group's television and radio ads—perceived by Farrell as attacks on Schweitzer—as a nonpartisan push for greater tax rebates for Montanans.
The state dismissed Farrell's complaint in summer 2007 citing a lack of evidence of Daines as a gubernatorial candidate. Daines later secured the Montana Republican Party's nomination for lieutenant governor on the 2008 ticket alongside gubernatorial hopeful Roy Brown. It's the only time, until now, that Daines has run for political office.
Like Daines, Common Sense Issues has a history of stirring up political controversy. The group has launched critical advertising campaigns on television and radio across the Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest for nearly five years, calling out Democratic senators like North Dakota's Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, Colorado's Mark Udall and South Dakota's Tim Johnson. Just this year, Common Sense Issues launched a Montana-based web and radio initiative titled the "Tester Tester" that accuses Jon Tester of being unwilling to answer questions about his political performance. Davis says voters nationwide can expect even more activity from the group over the next year.
"Montana's not the only place that we have an interest," Davis says. "We have an interest in issues that impact citizens in South Dakota, North Dakota, Colorado, Montana, Alaska, Utah, Kansas. That's just a short list of some of the places that we have done issue advocacy in the last 12 months."
For the Montana Democratic Party, that's a concern that extends beyond Daines' Senate campaign.
"We are concerned by the secrecy that comes with well-funded out-of-state campaigns," Kidston says. "Montanans expect transparency, and they aren't getting it."