Montana politicians are fighting for your vote in old and new ways, not all of them clean 

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The negativity playing out on television has only been amplified this season by third-party attack ads, such as the Patriot Majority USA attack on Rehberg. The conservative-leaning Crossroads GPS, another 501(c)(4), aired its first anti-Tester ad nearly a year ago. The spot accused Tester of “reckless spending” in D.C., but stopped short of calling for voters to oust him. Rehberg was never mentioned.

As “social welfare” groups, neither Patriot Majority USA nor Crossroads GPS are required to disclose their donors to the Federal Elections Commission. They are, however, forbidden from direct involvement in campaigns.

The wear factor of all these messages from all these groups can be worrisome for those working to encourage high voter turnout. Television ads clearly still play a key role in modern campaigning, Forward Montana’s Marcoccio says. “But I think the factor in 2012, and similar in 2008, is saturation. How much messaging can the average voter take via television before it’s just in one ear and out the other? How you fight through that clutter is talking to that same voter while the commercial’s on. You get them off the couch and talk to them at the door.”

Do not adjust your set

In May 2011, then-GOP tracker Ethan Heverly was hot on Tester’s heels outside a union-funded dinner, camera in hand. Heverly followed the Senator and his wife across a parking lot, asking why he supported Wall Street banks over Montana’s small businesses. Heverly’s questions went unacknowledged. Tester got into his car and prepared to drive off.

The last few seconds of the video—which is posted on YouTube—are shot mere inches from Tester’s driver seat window. The car backs out, and the camera swings to the ground.

A press release from the Montana Republican Party later accused Tester of running over Heverly’s foot, intentionally. “He clearly turned the wheel of his truck with the intention of hitting me,” Heverly stated in the release. “There was no doubt from the smile on his face that he knew exactly what he was doing.”

The accusation was a clear attempt to discredit Tester. The “gotcha” moment failed to hit its mark, however, and the incident went as unacknowledged as Heverly’s questions to Tester in that parking lot.

Linda Vaughey, the former Commissioner of Political Practices, finds it fascinating how far campaign tactics have advanced in recent years. Even organizations like Forward Montana are helping drive politics to the next level; Marcoccio says her group, in league with affiliates in Colorado, Washington and Oregon, will be rolling out an online voting component to social media this year called “The Ballot.” Add changing patterns among voters, and the modern campaign is a shape-shifter.

click to enlarge Denny Rehberg visits with Republican supporters at the Republican Convention in Missoula. - PHOTO BY STEELE WILLIAMS

“The percentage of people voting absentee now is really having an impact on how resources are allocated in campaigns,” Vaughey says, citing one factor in flux. According to the Montana Secretary of State’s office, 61 percent of voters in the Montana primary this June voted by mail-in ballot. “If you don’t have a pretty good saturation by the time those absentee ballots are sent out,” Vaughey says, “you’re really caught behind the eight ball in terms of perhaps missing a pretty large segment of voters.”

In Montana’s battle for the Senate, each campaign is emptying its toolbox. But they can only control their own tools, making much of this close race about response time. Campaigns create the news they want and respond to what they have to. Charting out strategy, or at least the details, a month in advance is difficult. Plans are made and plans are changed.

Williams believes the best tools are often those a campaign creates itself. They’re different for every campaign, he says. Tester and Rehberg alike seem to be tailoring their messages to Montanans who are right-of-center. Montana may be a red state, Williams says, but he ran nine times without disguising where he stood on the political spectrum. And nine times, he won. “When I ran, I used to say to my ad makers and my staff, ‘Montanans are left of center. They support Social Security. They support Medicare and Medicaid. They like the Interstate Highway System and farm payments. Those are liberal programs. Let’s run like a liberal, but a mountain liberal, not a nanny government liberal.’ And it worked for me. It worked like hell. I was elected more consecutive times than any House candidate in Montana history, saying ‘I’m a progressive.’”

With the Supreme Court’s ruling this month striking down Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act, Williams predicts a tsunami of spending from wealthy Republican backers like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers, and from unions coming out to support Tester. The messages will blur, the rhetoric will be thick. 2012 may well hinge not on the tools Tester and Rehberg now have, but on their reflexes and agility.

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