HELENA - One week before the June 8 primary election, Republican House candidate Kelly Flynn of Townsend has found himself targeted by an unknown group labeling him an ally of "liberal Washington insiders working with a violent left-wing union."
"I'm a conservative candidate," he said Wednesday. "But I feel pretty helpless when we get down to the last few days of a campaign and something like this, which is an outright lie, comes out to the voters. It's discouraging."
Flynn is not the only Republican legislative candidate in Montana on the receiving end of independent campaign mailers, sent to voters, calling them "liberal" or suggesting they're not supporting conservative issues.
Mailers from different groups have shown up in a handful of contested Republican primaries in recent days, questioning one of the candidate's commitment to conservative causes, such as gun rights or low taxes.
Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth said the groups appear to be breaking Montana campaign laws by failing to register with his office and disclose how they're raising and spending their money.
The mailers are trying to influence elections and therefore are campaign spending, and state law requires specific disclosure of the donors and spending of campaign funds, Unsworth said.
"These are shady characters trying to dupe voters," he said. "They think they need to hide, for some reason. They are working hard to avoid disclosure."
The mailer attacking Flynn came from a group called Assembly Action Fund, with a Lewistown Post Office box. It is not registered with the state as a political committee and doesn't show up as a business registered with the secretary of state.
The mailer says the fund is a "grassroots lobbying group organized under IRS 501(c)4," which is a nonprofit tax code. Under federal law, a 501(c)4 group is organized for educational purposes, and does not have to disclose its financial donors.
Flynn, a rancher, is one of two Republicans running for the open seat in House District 68, which includes Townsend and stretches south to suburban Belgrade. His primary opponent is Terry Bannan, a building contractor from Belgrade.
Assembly Action Fund's piece, which appeared in the mailboxes of HD68 voters this week, played off yet another ad campaign from a different independent group, known as Main Street Advocacy.
Main Street Advocacy, a Republican group headquartered in Washington, D.C., last month ran radio ads and sent campaign mailers in support of a dozen Republicans running in contested primaries. State Sen. John Brueggeman, R-Polson, who helped organize the effort, said last week the group wanted to support "rational conservatives" who might be falsely attacked as liberals.
The Assembly Action Fund mailer called Main Street Advocacy "a group of powerful Washington insiders working to defeat the Tea Party's conservative message."
It said the Main Street group is "dedicated to electing anti-gun, anti-tax cut, pro-gay marriage, pro-abortion liberals," and has spent "big bucks on misleading ads praising liberal Kelly Flynn."
Flynn said he's "pro-gun and pro-life," and that the Assembly Action piece is painting him as something "totally opposite from my campaign."
"I had some calls from people asking me if I really stood for some things that were on the front of that mailer," he said. "But it's out there. I'll have to do what I can do to counteract it."
Flynn said he asked Bannan, his primary opponent, if he'd co-sign a letter denouncing the ad.
Bannan said Wednesday he doubts he'll do that, unless Flynn publicly denounces the Main Street ads and their backers.
Bannan said he's "more of a Tea Party guy," while he considers Flynn an "old guard Republican," who has a considerable advantage in campaign funding. Bannan said he knows nothing about the Assembly Action Fund piece, but doesn't see any reason to assist his primary opponent.
Joe Dooling of Helena, a Republican challenging Rep. Mike Miller, R-Helmville, in the primary in HD84, said he's been targeted by mailers from the National League of Taxpayers and National Gun Owners Alliance.
Letters from the group compliment Miller for taking stands for their issues and criticize Dooling for not filling out their issue surveys. Neither group is registered with the state as a political committee.
"You can't trace it; you can't do anything about it," Dooling said Wednesday. "They're challenging my credentials as a Republican because I didn't fill out a survey. ... I used to work for (former U.S. Sen.) Conrad Burns and I was heavily involved in (U.S. Rep. Denny) Rehberg's campaign."
Rep. Gary MacLaren, R-Victor, said mailers have shown up in his district criticizing him as an ally of organized labor, because he didn't fill out surveys from groups supporting "right- to-work" laws, which prohibit requiring union membership as a condition of employment.
"It's a concern, because what they're putting in these ads isn't true, but you can't find out who they are, so you have no way of challenging them," MacLaren said. "But I've got quite a bit of faith in the voters to see through that sort of stuff and look at my actual record."
Christian LeFer, executive director of Montana Citizens for Right to Work, said his group sent out mailers in several legislative primaries, pointing out which candidate supports right-to-work laws or those who didn't answer the group's surveys.
They're not campaign pieces because they merely inform voters where candidates stand, and don't support or oppose a candidate, he said: "Voters deserve to know where candidates stand on important issues before they go to Helena, and we're simply helping them understand that."
Flynn, the HD68 candidate, said he hopes actions from such groups don't determine who wins or loses, because voters should be judging candidates based on what they truly stand for.
"All I want is a fair contest," he said. "It should be between Terry Bannan and myself."