HELENA - Rep. Denny Rehberg Friday one-upped Sen. Jon Tester's offer to ban third-party spending in their high-profile, high-cost U.S. Senate race, proposing to ban all out-of-state money.
The proposal from Rehberg, the main Republican challenger to Tester, would not only ban any future donations or spending by out-of-state groups and individuals, but also require himself and Tester to return out-of-state donations they've already received for the campaign.
"My Made in Montana pledge truly makes this a campaign by and about Montanans, and will guarantee an election free from out-of-state money and outside influences," Rehberg wrote.
If accepted, the proposal likely would force both men to drain or nearly drain their entire campaign accounts and start anew, with donations only from Montana residents.
Rehberg's proposal came two days after Tester, a Democrat, asked Rehberg to join him in discouraging outside groups from buying TV and radio ads to influence the race, by having the candidates pay a penalty if a group ran an ad benefiting them.
Rehberg included this aspect in his plan as well Friday, but made it broader, applying it to any spending and for the entire race. Tester's proposal would cancel the agreement and the penalties after the first violation.
Third-party groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which began running ads Thursday attacking Tester, have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on each side, trying to influence the race.
Tester campaign manager Preston Elliott said Tester is reviewing Rehberg's proposal, but said Rehberg's letter "reads like the attack ads we're trying to keep out of this race."
"The bottom line is that he rejected Jon's simple proposal to give Montanans the transparency and accountability they deserve," Elliott said.
Rehberg's letter to Tester said his opponent has a "track record of hypocrisy" and suggested Tester's initial proposal was a "self-serving political ploy."
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Under Rehberg's proposal, Tester and Rehberg would be restricted to spending only their own, respective campaign funds on the race - and could raise money only from individual Montanans.
As of Dec. 31, Tester had $3.85 million in his campaign fund and Rehberg had $2.1 million.
However, Rehberg's plan also would require each candidate to return any money donated by a political action committee, out-of-state resident or lobbyist.
Through last year, Tester had taken in $1.7 million from PACs and more than $2.2 million from out-of-state individuals - so he'd have to return his entire campaign fund, under Rehberg's proposal.
For the same period, Rehberg has taken in at least $554,000 from PACs and $1 million from non-Montanans, so he'd have to return at least three-fourths of his campaign fund under the proposal.
Rehberg's campaign manager, Erik Iverson, said Friday that Rehberg isn't inclined to bargain on his proposal.
"It's very simple: Only Montana money should be spent on the Montana Senate race," Iverson said. "There should be no outside money or influence, period. ... It is disingenuous for anyone to try and pick and choose which kind of outside money is bad, and which is good.
"The only way to be fair in a campaign pledge like this is to do away with all outside money ... and that's what this does," he added.
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.