So far in Montana's Senate race, third-party groups have dropped more than $2 million in independent expenditures, without official ties to a campaign.
That spending has largely favored the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Jon Tester. The League of Conservation Voters, the International Association of Firefighters and NARAL Pro-Choice America have spent a combined $422,138.70 supporting Tester's re-election bid. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and FreedomWorks for America have spent $267,419.99 opposing him. Patriot Majority USA, Montana Hunters and Anglers and LCV have dedicated over $1.3 million to defeating Republican challenger Rep. Denny Rehberg. And there is considerable additional spending by issue-advocacy groups.
Still, not all the cash pouring into the state is tied to outside interests. Much of Tester and Rehberg's campaign coffers can be traced to individual donors. Contributions of less than $200 account for roughly 10 percent of each candidate's current fundraising totals. A further 55 percent comes from contributions between $200 and $2,500.
Tester and Rehberg's latest disclosure reports reveal scores of donations such as a $100 contribution to Rehberg from a rancher in Big Sandy, a $2,500 donation to Tester from a writer in Aspen, Colo., and $3,050 to Rehberg from a retiree in Bellevue, Wash. Money is trickling in through contributions from construction workers, homemakers, farmers, a New York City interior decorator, a Harvard University professor of medicine and a couple of film producers. Retirees have donated from as close as Hamilton and as far away as Shreveport, La.
Tester has tried to distance himself from his D.C. ties this year, if not from his party. Rehberg has painted himself as a maverick within the GOP. Yet some donors still base their support on the notion that Tester's a liberal and Rehberg's a conservative.
Thomas Michelli, a retiree from Darby, gave $3,950 to Rehberg this year. Michelli says he's met Rehberg, finds him personable and likes his political philosophy. "And he's running against Tester," Michelli adds, citing the connections between Tester and President Obama that third parties have touted in ads this year. "One of the things Rehberg has working for him is ... he opposes Obamacare," says Michelli, who's co-hosting a fundraiser for Rehberg in the Bitterroot this month.
Tester's support for the Affordable Care Act is what won over Carter resident Anne Baack, who supports the ACA and donated $2,500 to the candidate. She's seen the spots attacking Tester for supporting the healthcare bill. "I get irritated when I see that ad that says 'The people of Montana didn't want the healthcare act, but Tester voted for it anyway.' Well, I'm a Montanan."
Baack, who was a representative to the Montana Democratic Party's platform convention this year, says she's met Tester several times. He's a "family man," she says, a farmer just like her husband. "I'm a liberal. He's a liberal."
In Payson, Ariz., retiree Lenora Pusta, 84, says she'd never heard of Rehberg until 2012. She's donated to the Republican National Committee before and guesses they gave her information to other campaigns. She responded to a Rehberg mailer with a $6,000 donation. Due to contribution limits, she got $1,000 back. "I'm just working for people who are really concerned about how our world is going these days," Pusta says. "Even if Romney gets in ... he has to have more Republicans in the Senate."
At least some individual contributions come with an asterisk. Stephanie Schriock donated $2,000 to Tester; she's the president of the pro-choice Democratic PAC EMILY'S List, considered a heavy hitter in outside spending in 2012. Commercial developer Pat Broe gave $2,500 to Rehberg; he ranks 25th on The Land Report's list of largest private landowners in the country.
Among Rehberg's other connected individual donors is Emanuel Rossman, a lobbyist with Patton Boggs who represents prominent clients such as Delta Airlines, FedEx, Goldman Sachs and defense contractor Raytheon. Rossman donated $800 to Rehberg this year. He also lobbied on behalf of Royal Dutch Shell this spring against an attempt by Senate Democrats Tester among them to close tax loopholes for five major oil companies.
Tester's FEC filings show individual contributions from equally connected folks. Take Steve Cohen, a renowned Chicago trial lawyer with the Cohen Law Group and a co-founder of the Whistleblower Action Network. He's donated $1,500 to Tester this cycle; his donation was matched by two $1,500 contributions from students Jordan and Rebecca Cohen, with all three listing the same address. Steve has bundled $323,794 for Obama's re-election this year. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Obama named him to the board of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation last fall.
Jeffery Ricchetti, a lobbyist and former director of the Federal Communications Commission, has contributed $1,500 to the Tester campaign. He currently lobbies for the American Hospital Association, which trumpeted the Supreme Court's decision in June to uphold Obama's Affordable Care Act. Ricchetti's brother, former lobbyist Steve Ricchetti, was named as counselor to Vice President Joe Biden this spring. Steve has donated to a score of Democratic campaigns, including that of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who hosted a fundraiser for five Senate Democrats, including Tester, at her San Francisco home in June.