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The desire to offer donors complete anonymity became more clear recently. This March, a district court judge ruled in Van Hollen v. FEC that disclosure laws pertaining to groups like Crossroads had been misinterpreted, and that nonprofits running "issue advocacy" ads had to disclose certain donors. Crossroads subsequently abandoned its mock-neutrality and began running ads directly opposing Tester in September. When an appeals court overturned the Van Hollen ruling on Sept. 18, Crossroads quickly transitioned back to its "issue advocacy" model.
"These groups have, as their priority, not to disclose their funding sources," Holman says. "As a result, most of this outside money spent in Montana, you really aren't going to know where it's coming from."
Even if these nonprofits do overstep campaign finance regulations, enforcement at the federal level is weak. The IRS is currently investigating Rove's Crossroads GPS and others under suspicion that they've violated their tax-exempt status by dedicating more money to political agendas than to social welfare. But any investigation will take time, and it's not like the candidates they back will be kicked out of office for a nonprofit's infraction. "If they get in trouble later, they'll deal with it when they get in trouble," Allison says. "But the election is over in November, and they're going to pull out all the stops to get their guy to win."
Crossroads admitted to its primary agenda earlier this summer: To regain a Republican majority in the Senate. It has specifically targeted the weakest Senate candidates in the country, particularly in North Dakota, Nebraska, Montana and Missouri. Following Missouri Republican candidate Todd Akin's comments in September about rape, conservative backers pulled their support for his bid, including Crossroads GPS. The group is now redistributing its financial weight to remaining at-risk races.
"I actually kind of feel sorry for you guys [in Montana], because your television waves will be saturated with negative attack ads for the next couple weeks," Holman says. "You're not going to be able to get away from it."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, also a 501(c)(4), has spent $702,000 attacking Tester, with zero donor transparency. The attacks have hit on the same notes as scores of others: support for Obamacare, tax hikes, siding with "the Washington way." But it's Crossroads that has trumpeted the mantra of the Rehberg campaign that Tester has voted with President Barack Obama "95 percent of the time." Taken from the Crossroads ads, however, the message is switched to "97 percent of the time." The continued attacks have added considerably to the negativity of the campaigns.
"It's almost like candidates have outsourced their negative ad operations to these groups, because it doesn't stick to the candidate," Allison says. "Afterwards, it's not Mitt Romney or Jon Tester saying 'I approve this message.' It's 'Paid for by Americans for Good Government and Apple Pie' and whatever else. The candidate doesn't get the negative perceptions for running negative ads."
The root of the message
UM's Jim Lopach believes much of this outside influence washes right over a bulk of Montana's electorate. He calls it "wasted money." Political advertising is far more likely to reassure voters who already have their minds made up than it is to create converts. "People tune it out," Lopach says.
Given the D.C. savvy of the strategists running the operations, Allison isn't so sure.
"Folks like Karl Rove and Bill Burton on the Democratic side, who's doing [Obama super PAC] Priorities USA, are not stupid," Allison says. "They don't do things that don't work. They run so many negative ads because they know it will frame elections for voters."
If outside spending has any influence on the voter at all, Allison adds, it's that the high level of negativity turns the voter off the process entirely. Ads in the 2008 presidential race were largely positive compared to 2012, and that election enjoyed a high voter turnout rate. "You might see turnout dropping in 2012," Allison says.
The real impact is felt by the candidate, watching as his or her message is corrupted by groups with secretive money and ulterior motives. Tester rolled out his first campaign ads as a series of reassurances that he's still the Montana farmer voters sent to D.C. in 2006. There has been the occasional attack on Rehberg, but Tester has largely stuck to his votes in favor of the auto-industry bailout and his work on bills benefitting the state's veterans.
Rehberg went on the offensive early in his campaign, promoting his campaign's central message that Tester is, effectively, Obama Lite. By early summer, however, he shifted into his own identity branding, releasing an ad featuring a Bozeman family's story about how Rehberg helped them overcome bureaucratic red-tape when adopting their daughter from Nepal.
The messages are fairly clear: Tester's a Montana farmer representing families and small businesses, and Rehberg's a Montana rancher promising to shrink the federal government's footprint in the state. But with so many outside ads dominating Montana's airwaves, it's become easy for the positive reinforcement behind those messages to get lost in the din. And it's grown equally as easy for the candidates' negative salvos to become amplified.
"You end up with these different voices with different perspectives that are very different from the candidates', and that can really get in the way of their messaging," Allison says. "Especially in congressional races, an outside group dumping a couple million dollars when you have House candidates raising a few million and Senators raising maybe $10 million or $20 million, that can have a huge impact."
That's primarily why Allison's Sunlight Foundation, along with nonprofits such as the Center for Responsive Politics, have taken steps to bring more transparency to the process. Over the past two years, Sunlight has rolled out a number of searchable web databases making campaign finance information more accessible for the general public. Sites like Influence Explorer boast "Google simplicity," as Allison puts it, and allow voters to search for specific donors and candidates. Political Partytime, a database of political event invitations, sheds light on how individual candidates go about raising campaign cash.
"Members of Congress don't have to really tell us how they raise all that money," Allison says. "I mean, they have to disclose their donors, but they don't say how they raise it. So we've forced this transparency on them using old-fashioned journalism, talking to sources and asking them for invites."
These efforts won't solve the underlying problem of unchecked outside influence on political campaigns. Neither will the DISCLOSE Act, a bill languishing in Congress this year that would require stricter disclosure of political spending and contributions. Legally, there are only two possibilities for reining in the unprecedented amounts of cash flowing through the current elections process. The Supreme Court could reverse its decision in Citizens United, an outcome that's unlikely given the court's strike-down this year of Montana's Corrupt Practices Act. Or Congress could pass a constitutional amendment limiting the campaign activity of corporations.
"Amending the constitution is a very difficult process," Lopach says. "It's only been done 27 times, and only four of those 27 amendments overrode Supreme Court decision in our history. When people put on the ballot a measure that urges the Montana Legislature to urge Congress to propose an amendment, it's just futile. That's not going to happen."
In other words, get used to seeing elections through the current fractured view. Campaigns may try to rise above outside influence to reach potential voters, but if 2012 is any indication, the electorate would have a clearer perspective of the candidates after a couple gallons of rum.