In his race to unseat Sen. Jon Tester, Matt Rosendale has raised only a fraction of the amount that the incumbent has — about $2 million compared to $14 million.
But when so-called “outside spending” is considered, the numbers gap narrows, revealing a different side to this and other races. The Center for Responsive Politics — also known by its website OpenSecrets.org — shows that since the June 5 primary:
• More than $7.6 million has been spent by groups trying to defeat Tester; another $477,690 has been spent to support Rosendale. That’s about $8 million in outside spending trying to oust Tester.
• Conversely, almost $6 million has been spent by groups opposing Rosendale; another $124,260 was spent supporting Tester. That’s $6.1 million in outside spending trying to defeat Rosendale.
This outside spending is done by groups or individuals that can’t, by law, coordinate with a candidate or the candidate’s committee, and formally are known as “independent expenditures.” In fact, it’s illegal to have that type of coordination without it being disclosed and a value attached to it.
Rosendale came under fire last month amid accusations that he illegally coordinated with the National Rifle Association on advertising to support his campaign. His spokesman, Shane Scanlon, said at the time that Rosendale only discussed the NRA’s endorsement of him, which is legal.
OUTSIDE SPENDING VS. DARK MONEY
Outside spending isn’t the same as “dark” money, but they can overlap. Dark money includes political spending where the source of the money isn’t disclosed.
That can include political nonprofits — like social welfare organizations, labor groups or chambers of commerce — and super Political Action Committees, or super PACs, which are required to disclose donors but can take unlimited contributions from the political nonprofits and shell corporations that don’t disclose donors.
A super PAC differs from a PAC in that PACs can give up to $5,000 to a candidate or committee in each election cycle. Super PACs are independent expenditure-only committees that can’t donate to candidates or parties.
“'Dark money’ refers to the source of the money, not the type of spending,” said Andrew Mayersohn, a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics. “So there are dark money groups that make independent expenditures, and dark money groups that run ‘issue ads’ that don’t need to be reported to the FEC.”
For example, on Tuesday the Restoration super PAC announced a new $500,000 anti-Tester television ad purchase that also will include $200,000 on digital platforms. Despite it being a super PAC making an independent expenditure, a quick check at OpenSecrets.org shows the main money behind the Restoration super PAC comes from Richard Uihlein, owner of the Uline shipping company and a descendant of the brewers of Schlitz beer. Uihlein is the second-largest donor, behind Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, to conservative outside spending groups in 2018, having given $30.8 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
It’s fairly easy to follow that money trail using online sources. Since September 2017, Uihlein has given $5.6 million to the Restoration super PAC, which has spent $4.7 million to support Republican candidates and $666,374 to oppose Democrats. That includes $533,185 in support of Rosendale, and as of Tuesday showed $26,000 to oppose Tester.
The anti-Tester ad notes at the bottom that it’s “Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee,” which means that it’s an independent expenditure. But the ability to see who is funding the super PAC means it’s not “dark” money.
TOP INDEPENDENT EXPENDITURES
The money trail is a little murkier looking into the Senate Majority PAC, which has spent $1 million supporting Tester. The largest contributor is Working for Working Americans, which partially discloses the source of its funds as being from the carpenters’ union. But unions don’t have to report their donors to the Federal Election Commission as a means to protect union members, although they do report them to the federal Department of Labor. Mayersohn said his group considers this to be an organization that discloses its funding.
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At $3.4 million, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has offered the most outside spending in Montana’s race in support of Rosendale. Its top funders include Charles Schwab, Robert Mercer and Charles Koch.
“Our job is to elect Republicans to the Senate. That’s our top priority,” said Calvin Moore, the NRSC’s regional communications director. “Montana is definitely important this year. Nationwide, there’s a lot of Democrats running in state that are not a good fit for their constituents; Trump won in double digits, so we will make Montanans aware of their differences.”
Richard Uihlein — who also is active in the Restoration PAC — is the top donor for the anti-tax Club for Growth, with $5 million in donations. Club for Growth has spent $1.3 million for ads opposing Tester since the primary election in June.
The Senate Reform Fund (SRF), a single-candidate super PAC set up only to support Rosendale, hasn’t reported any donors of more than $200 to the FEC, and its only expenditure is $1.1 million in advertising opposing Tester, so that could be considered a “dark money” super PAC.
“This is a tricky case,” Mayersohn noted. “There are more and more groups like the SRF, which incorporate just in time to spend money on a race without having to disclose their donors before Election Day.”
The three largest independent expenditures made on behalf of Tester include $1.7 million from End Citizens United, and $1 million each from the Senate Majority PAC and National Education Association Advocacy Fund.
End Citizens United also is a single-issue group that both directly funds candidates and also makes independent expenditures, including the $1.7 million against Rosendale. Tester has long advocated for overturning Citizens United, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that is noted for allowing unrestricted independent expenditures in elections by corporations.
“Jon Tester is the only candidate in this race who is advocating for campaign finance reform,” said his spokesman Chris Meagher. “He wants to bring more transparency to the race.”
The Senate Majority PAC’s top funders include Donald Sussman and Jim Simons, who are billionaire hedge fund managers; actor Seth MacFarlane; and Alexander Soros, son of liberal billionaire George Soros. Not only does it list its donors, it also lists contributors to and from other PACs.
The National Education Association Advocacy Fund is funded entirely by the National Education Association, which in turn is funded mainly by small donations — in the $2,000 range — from people associated with education. Rosendale appears to be the only candidate targeted in their ads.
And Tester is the top beneficiary of outside spending from the national League of Conservation Voters, which spent $991,600 to oppose Rosendale. Its top donor is the Environment American Action Fund, which is a super PAC funded mainly by donations of less than $1,500.
“Jon Tester is one of the strongest defenders of public lands in the Senate,” said Alyssa Roberts, the national press secretary for the League. “As an organization we are committed to conservation and are proud to work with our partners.”
MORE TO COME?
More information on outside spending is available at The Center for Responsive Politics’ website, OpenSecrets.org/outsidespending.
David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University, said that during the 2012 Senate race, outside groups were responsible for 68 percent of the political ads on television.
“What’s clear to me is what is happening is there’s a lot of outside money coming in to go after Jon Tester and to put the race in play,” Parker said. “That tells me that if these outside groups think he’s vulnerable, they’ll shift funding.”