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HELENA - When Denton rancher Scott Seilstad challenged incumbent Republican state Rep. Ed Butcher in a primary contest this June, he had to tangle with something other than Butcher: campaign mailers and money from a bevy of obscure political groups bent on defeating him.

Seilstad, a pro-life Republican who signed a pledge against raising taxes, found himself accused of being soft on abortion, cozy with labor unions and supporting higher taxes.

"I don't mind a good, clean campaign on the issues," Seilstad said. "But this kind of deception of the voters the last few days of the election is sleazy campaigning."

Seilstad, who lost the House District 29 Republican primary to Butcher by 20 votes, wasn't the only legislative candidate targeted by last-minute, third-party campaign mailers during the June 3 primary.

The mailers showed up in at least a half-dozen Republican House primaries, often in the final days before the election, labeling the targeted candidate (or candidates) as "liberal" or "soft" on issues such as crime, abortion, taxes, gun ownership, natural resource development and labor unions.

The 10 or so groups responsible for the mailers are based mostly in Bozeman and Virginia, and have names such as Mothers Against Child Predators or the National Gun Owners Alliance. A half-dozen of the groups were formed only a few weeks ago, just before the June 3 election, according to records at the state Political Practices Office.

Some of the groups also gave cash donations to Republican primary opponents of the candidates targeted by the mailers.

In most races where these groups were active, the candidate they assisted won the primary election. Three Republican incumbents targeted by these groups lost primary battles on June 3: Reps. John Ward of Helena, Bruce Malcolm of Emigrant and Carol Lambert of Broadus.

Ward, Malcolm and Lambert said a week ago they plan to run as write-in candidates in the general election, in part to protest what they said were "sleazy campaign tactics" of the groups that targeted them.

Whether or how these groups coordinated their efforts is unclear. Officials from most of the groups did not return telephone messages, ignored e-mails or declined to say much about what they are doing.

It's not unusual for so-called "third party" or "outside" groups to get involved in campaigns here or elsewhere, using their own money to promote or oppose candidates, funding mailers, telephone calls or other efforts.

In 2006, for example, the Montana Democratic Party sent out last-minute mailers that attacked a half-dozen Republican legislative candidates in key races.

What is unusual about most of this latest collection of groups, however, is their formation just before the election and their relative obscurity and secrecy, says state Political Practices Commissioner Dennis Unsworth.

"They weren't always forthcoming on names of officers; phone calls (from my office) weren't returned," he said last week. "But we did see some of their handiwork in terms of these 'hit pieces' in the mail."

They also sometimes operate on the edge of Montana's campaign finance laws, which require disclosure of who's spending money to influence elections, Unsworth said.

Mailers from these groups generally took two forms:

n Harshly worded criticism of an incumbent's voting record, on issues such as the death penalty, taxes and energy legislation. For example, one mailer accused Ward of "voting with criminal-coddling liberal activists" for voting in 2007 to bring to the House floor a bill abolishing the death penalty in Montana.

The same mailer featured pictures of serial killer John Wayne Gacy of Illinois and convicted killer Nathaniel Bar-Jonah of Great Falls, saying "John Ward believes monsters like this deserve to live."

n Criticizing candidates who allegedly didn't respond to issue surveys sent by the groups.

Seilstad and Neal Donaldson, a Republican candidate who lost a primary in House District 62 in Livingston, say they didn't even receive surveys that they were rapped for not answering.

Donaldson said the National Alliance of Gun Owners sent mailers to people in HD62 the Friday before the election, saying he hadn't answered its survey and implying that he didn't support gun-owner rights.

"I got quite a few candidate surveys and I responded to every one of them," he said. "I never got (their) survey. For someone to be implying that I'm a threat to their Second Amendment and hunting rights is just a lie."

A phone call to the gun-owner group in Burke, Va., went unanswered.

Republican House incumbents targeted by the mailers had been targeted for defeat by Rep. Roger Koopman, R-Bozeman. He said the incumbents were too liberal and recruited opponents to run against them in the Republican primaries.

Koopman says he had nothing to do with the groups that sent the mailers.

At least two of the groups have ties to Rep. John Sinrud, R-Bozeman, an outspoken conservative and critic of Gov. Brian Schweitzer. He helped form Western Tradition Partnership, a group that sent out some of the survey-related mailers, and gave $2,000 to the Coalition for Energy and the Environment, which funded mailers attacking Ward and Malcolm.

Sinrud, development director for Western Tradition Partnership, said the group sent surveys to candidates in nearly two dozen contested primary races this year "with the goal to understand where the candidates stand on natural resource and private property rights issues."

He did not answer several questions, sent by e-mail, about criticisms of the tactics or details of his group's operations.

None of the groups that sent the survey letters reported their spending to the state Political Practices Office.

Unsworth said the groups apparently are relying on federal rules that say they don't have to report specific spending, as long as they don't openly advocate election or defeat of a candidate.

He said that question has never been addressed under Montana law, which requires reporting of any spending meant to influence an election.

Butcher, who defeated Seilstad and was mentioned favorably in several of the survey mailers sent to HD29 voters, speculated that the groups simply sought to defend or promote legislators known to agree with their conservative views.

"I didn't solicit their support; they just came in," he said. "I really don't know why they came in. Apparently they consider me one of the main leaders in the Legislature supporting property rights and lower taxes."

Butcher, a rancher from Winifred, also said the national groups may be recognizing that a few well-placed conservatives in the Montana Legislature can make a difference, including new lawmakers.

"With term limits, you have a lot more (new) people that are suddenly running, and they realize if they win, they can be effective (right away)," he said.

Seilstad, who's lost two close primary elections to Butcher, said the groups are interested only in someone supporting their "extremist agenda," and appear willing to deceive voters about a candidate's views.

"It's something that will discourage people who want to run for office, who have integrity and who want to do something for Montana," he said. "Maybe that's what they're trying to do."

Primer on groups promoting conservative candidates

HELENA - A dozen groups, some newly formed, spent money and mailed campaign pieces to promote conservative candidates in selected Republican legislative primaries this spring. They included:

Alliance of Montana Taxpayers: Based in Bozeman, the alliance gave money to eight Republican candidates in contested primaries and sent a letter to voters in House District 84, attacking incumbent Republican John Ward. Its $2,000 in funds came from the National Right to Work Political Action Committee in Springfield, Va. Treasurer Hillary Allen listed no telephone number on forms filed with the state.

Coalition for Energy & the Environment: Based in Bozeman, this group funded mailers attacking Ward and Rep. Bruce Malcolm, R-Bozeman. Its treasurer, Fawn Kirkpatrick of Bozeman, listed an incorrect telephone number and e-mail address on forms filed with the state. It reported spending about $4,000, including $3,500 to a communications firm in Colorado. Kirkpatrick and Rep. John Sinrud, R-Bozeman, provided its funding.

Conservative Victory Fund: This group, based in Belgrade, gave money to nine Republican candidates and spent $3,500 on direct mail, but didn't identify where the mailers were sent. Its money came from the National Right to Work PAC and the National Pro-Life Alliance in Annandale, Va. Treasurer Bruce Hanson didn't return a telephone message.

Montana Citizens for Right to Work: This group sent mailers in several races, identifying which candidates filled out the group's surveys on issues and criticizing those who didn't. Its president, Greg Hagenston of Glendive, says the group has been active in Montana for many years. Right-to-work groups favor laws that forbid closed union shops that make payment of union dues a condition of employment.

Right to Work Political Action Committee: This PAC gave money to several Republican candidates. Its $2,000 came from the national right-to-work group.

Montana Committee to Protect the Unborn: Based in Bozeman, this group gave money to several Republican candidates. Its $4,000 in funding came from the National Pro-Life Alliance. Treasurer Mike Sidders says the group supports candidates "who recognize the right to life for all humans from conception forward."

Mothers Against Child Predators: Based in Bozeman, this group financed mailers attacking Ward and Rep. Bruce Malcolm for voting in favor of bills to abolish the death penalty. It reported $2,000 in contributions, mostly from out of state. Treasurer Jennifer Paul hung up on a reporter who called to ask about the group and did not respond to an e-mail.

National Gun Owners Alliance: Based in Virginia, this group sent mailers in several races, saying some candidates didn't answer its survey on gun and hunting issues. Telephone calls to its listed number went unanswered.

National League of Taxpayers: This group also sent survey-related mailers. Telephone calls to its number in Springfield, Va., were not answered.

National Pro-Life Alliance: Based in Virginia, this group funded two of the above groups and sent out survey-related mailers in some contested Republican primaries, suggesting candidates were not supporting anti-abortion positions. It did not return a telephone message.

Sportsmen's Rights PAC: Based in Livingston, this group gave money to a handful of Republican candidates. Treasurer Tim Watson, listed as a rancher from Livingston, gave the group $1,000. He didn't respond to a telephone message or e-mail.

Western Tradition Partnership: Formed by Rep. John Sinrud, R-Bozeman, and former U.S. Rep. Ron Marlenee, R-Mont., it promotes natural-resource development property rights. Sinrud said it sent surveys to candidates in nearly two-dozen races; it also followed up by sending mailers that criticized candidates for not responding to the survey.

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