Over the past month, retrospectives on Montana's 2012 U.S. Senate race have estimated that candidates, parties and independent organizations combined spent as much as $51 million trying to sway voter opinion. Nearly a quarter of that came from nonprofits in the form of what's commonly called "dark money," expenses made using contributions from a host of shadowy donors.
Sen. Jon Tester may have come out the victor, but the question now facing Montana and the nation is troubling: How do we shine a light on those shadows? The answer depends on how the Federal Election Commission reacts to the growing secrecy of campaign spending over the coming year.
Late last month, the FEC elected as its new chair Ellen Weintraub, hailed by numerous campaign finance reform advocates as the most liberal voice on the six-person commission in favor of increased transparency.
Weintraub has a long list of goals going into 2013. Shortly after receiving her new position Dec. 20, she told reporters with the Sunlight Foundation that she intends to push for more stringent regulations on super PACs like the liberal Majority PAC and Republican strategist Karl Rove's American Crossroads, which spent $3 million and $1.8 million respectively in Montana's Senate race. American Crossroads outspent every other super PAC last year, dropping more than $104 million supporting or opposing various candidates nationwide. Only 1.29 percent of that money went to races where American Crossroads saw the desired result.
"Hope springs eternal," Weintraub told the Sunlight Foundation. "I think the commission ought to address these issues...Whether we'll be able to take them on is an entirely different question."
The answer will doubtlessly have ramifications in Montana as Republicans seek to oust Sen. Max Baucus in 2014. But even with Weintraub's election, the FEC will have a tough time reining in outside spending. The commission remains deadlocked with three Democrats and three Republicans, and five of the six have already surpassed the end of their terms without Congress or President Barack Obama appointing replacements. Weintraub's own term expired in April 2007; she was appointed on Dec. 6, 2002.This story was updated on Jan. 3. An earlier version incorrectly identified Weintraub as the first Democratic chair since 2008.