It didn't buy ads supporting the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Jon Tester. Instead, it put up radio and TV commercials that urged voters to choose the third-party candidate, libertarian DanCox, describing Cox as the "real conservative" or the "true conservative."
Where did the group's money come from? Nobody knows.
The pro-Cox ads were part of a national pattern in which groups that did not disclose their donors, including social welfare nonprofits and trade associations, played a larger role than ever before in trying to sway U.S. elections. Throughout the 2012 election, ProPublica has focused on the growing importance of this so-called dark money in national and local races.
Such spending played a greater role in the Montana Senate race than almost any other. With control of the U.S. Senate potentially at stake, candidates, parties and independent groups spent more than $51 million on this contest, all to win over fewer than 500,000 voters. That's twice as much as was spent when Tester was elected in 2006.
Almost one quarter of that was dark money, donated secretly to nonprofits.
"It just seems so out of place here," said Democrat Brian Schweitzer, the governor of Montana who leaves office at the end of this year. "About one hundred dollars spent for every person who cast a vote. Pretty spectacular, huh? And most of it, we don't have any idea where it came from. Day after the election, they closed up shop and disappeared into the dark."
Political insiders say the Montana Senate race provided a particularly telling glimpse at how campaigns are run in the no-holds-barred climate created by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, giving a real-world counterpoint to the court's assertion that voters could learn all they needed to know about campaign funding from disclosure.
In many ways, Montana was a microcosm of how outside spending worked nationally, but it also points to the future. Candidates will be forced to start raising money earlier to compete in an arms race with outside groups. Voters will be bombarded with TV ads, mailers and phone calls. And then on Election Day, they will be largely left in the dark, unable to determine who's behind which message.
All told, 64 outside groups poured $21 million into the Montana Senate election, almost as much as the candidates. Party committees spent another $8.9 million on the race.
The groups started spending money a year before either candidate put up a TV ad, defining the issues and marginalizing the role of political parties. In a state where ads were cheap, they took to the airwaves. More TV commercials ran in the Montana race between June and the election than in any other Senate contest nationwide.
The Montana Senate race also shows how liberal groups have learned to play the outside money game—despite griping by Democratic officials about the influence of such organizations.
Liberal outside groups spent $10.2 million on the race, almost as much as conservatives. Conservatives spent almost twice as much from anonymous donors, but the $4.2 million in dark money that liberal groups pumped into Montana significantly outstripped the left's spending in many other races nationwide.
As in other key states, conservative groups devoted the bulk of their money in Montana to TV and radio ads. But sometimes the ads came across as generic and missed their mark.
Liberal groups set up field offices, knocked on doors, featured "Montana" in their names or put horses in their TV ads. Many of them, including Montana Hunters and Anglers, were tied to a consultancy firm where a good friend of Jim Messina, President Barack Obama's campaign manager, is a partner.
The end result? Tester beat Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg by a narrow margin. And the libertarian Cox, who had so little money he didn't even have to report to federal election authorities, picked up more votes than any other libertarian in a competitive race on the Montana ballot.
Montana Republicans blamed Montana Hunters and Anglers, made up of a super PAC and a sister dark money nonprofit, for tipping the race. Even though super PACs have to report their donors, the Montana Hunters and Anglers super PAC functioned almost like a dark money group. Records show its major donors included an environmentalist group that didn't report its donors and two super PACs that in turn raised the bulk of their money from the environmentalist group, other dark money groups and unions.
"Part of what's frustrating to me is I look at Montana Hunters and Anglers and say, 'That is not fair,'" said Bowen Greenwood, executive director for the Montana Republican Party. "I am a hunter. I know plenty of hunters. And Montana hunters don't have their positions. It would be fairer if it was called Montana Environmental Activists. That would change the effect of their ads."
Cox and Tester deny the group's efforts swung the race. No one from Montana Hunters and Anglers returned calls for comment.
Tester, who's argued that all groups spending on elections should disclose their donors and also pushed against super PACs, said he wasn't familiar with any of the outside groups running ads. By law, candidates are not allowed to coordinate with outside spending groups, which are supposed to be independent.
Despite his ambivalence, he said he was glad the outside groups jumped in.
"If we wouldn't have had folks come in on our side, it would have been much tougher to keep a message out there," Tester said. "We had no control over what they were saying. But by the same token, I think probably in the end if you look at it, they were helpful."
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Montana has long prided itself on a refusal to be pigeonholed. It's the kind of place that votes Republican for president but elects Democrats to state office. Politicians wear bolo ties, tout their Montana credentials and use words like "hell" and "crap." People introduce themselves by saying what generation Montanan they are.
Consistently, the state fights against any mandate that smacks of Washington meddling, from the federal speed limit to the Citizens United ruling in early 2010, which opened the door to corporations and unions spending unlimited money on independent ads, echoing an earlier court ruling that equated money with free speech.
Before that, Montana had one of the country's toughest campaign finance laws, dating back 100 years, to the time of the copper kings. After one of those kings bribed state lawmakers to back him as senator, the state banned corporate political spending.
Even after Citizens United, the Montana Supreme Court insisted that Montana's legacy of corruption justified keeping the ban. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court squashed that move, saying the Citizens United decision applied to every state in the nation.
By then, dark money groups were already weighing in on Montana's Senate race.
The TV ads started in March 2011, the month after Rehberg announced. The Environmental Defense Action Fund attacked Rehberg for his stance on mercury emissions. The Electronic Payments Coalition praised Tester for his push to delay implementing new debit-card swipe fees.
"The thing that surprised me a little bit was how early they got involved," said David Parker, an associate professor of political science at Montana State University who tracked all 160 TV commercials as part of a book he is writing on the race. "And I think that was critical, because very early on, they were able to establish the contours of this race. The candidates were just busy putting their organizations together and raising money."
Most of the money spent in 2011 on TV ads came from groups that didn't have to report their donors. They also didn't have to report their ads to the Federal Election Commission, because they didn't specifically tell voters to vote for or against a candidate. Instead of saying "Vote for Rehberg," they said things like "Call Jon Tester. Tell him to stop supporting President Barack Obama." Ads like that only have to be reported to the FEC if they air during the two months before an election.
The only way to compile data on such ad spending is by visiting TV stations, which Parker did. ProPublica helped him collect information on the last round of ads.
Parker's data shows that several heavyweight conservative groups entered the fray in mid-2011 to try to cast Tester, whom they saw as vulnerable, as a big spender.
Crossroads GPS, the dark money group launched by GOP strategist Karl Rove, ran two ads in July2011 similar to those attacking Democrats in other states for supporting excessive spending.
Also that month, a conservative group called Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee ran a sarcastic ad about a new miracle drug called "Spenditol," Washington's answer to America's problems. "Call Sen. Jon Tester," the ad said. "Tell him, stop spending it all." Similar ads ran against Democratic senators up for election in tight races in Florida, Nebraska and Ohio.
Several ads run by conservative groups backfired, messing up in ways that irked Montanans.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee—a party committee that reports its donors—ran an ad that appeared to show Tester with all five digits on his left hand. (Tester is well known for having lost three fingers in a childhood accident involving a meat grinder.) The U.S. Chamber of Commerce misspelled Tester's first name. A Montana cable operator yanked a Crossroads ad for claims the operator deemed false.
"The first one that burned me really bad was from the U.S. Chamber," said Verner Bertelsen, a former Republican state legislator and Montana secretary of state. "I thought—you buggers! We don't need you to come in here and tell us who to vote for."
And in October, weeks after forming, the dark money side of Montana Hunters and Anglers, Montana Hunters and Anglers Action!, launched its first TV ad, starring Land Tawney, the group's gap-toothed and camouflage-sporting president, who also served on the Sportsmen's Advisory Panel for Tester. At the time, the super PAC side of the group was basically dormant.
The new Hunters ad accused Rehberg of pushing a bill—House bill 1505—that supposedly would give Washington politicians control of access to public lands in Montana. Rehberg, one of 60 cosponsors, argued the legislation was necessary to help the Department of Homeland Security protect the state from illegal immigrants, drug smugglers and terrorists.
"Nobody in Montana was talking about that bill," Greenwood said. "I've only heard it talked about in campaign ads. And it played a role throughout the election."
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The gusher of outside money into Montana's Senate race was part of a larger pattern. Nationally, in addition to the $5.1 billion spent by candidates and parties, almost 700 outside spending groups dumped more than $1 billion into federal elections in the 2012 cycle, FEC filings show.
Of that, about $322 million was dark money, most of it from 153 social welfare nonprofits, groups that could spend money on politics as long as social welfare—not politics—was their primary purpose.
Relating those numbers to previous elections is a largely pointless exercise, akin to comparing statistics from baseball and lacrosse. The Citizens United ruling changed the game, opening the door to unlimited corporate donations to super PACs and to a new breed of more politically active nonprofits.
"Instead of being in a boxing match in a ring, you're in a dark alley being hit by four or five people, and you don't know who they are," said Michael Sargeant, the executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which helps Democrats run for state offices.
Some of the players in the 2012 cycle were longtime activist organizations such as the liberal Sierra Club and the conservative National Right to Life Committee, with clear social welfare missions and only a limited amount of political spending. Other dark money groups were juggernauts like Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity, founded years ago by conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, which crank up their fundraising during election years and devote more money to election ads than other nonprofits.
Finding out about some of the less prominent nonprofits was no easy feat. Many were formed out of post-office boxes or law firms. On their applications to the Internal Revenue Service, they minimized or even denied any political activity.
Kim Barker just finished her term as the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where she studied, wrote and lectured on Pakistan and Afghanistan and U.S. policy. She was the South Asia bureau chief for the Tribune from 2004 to 2009 and was based in New Delhi and Islamabad.