A century ago, Montanans banned corporate political spending in their state, repelled by brazen power plays from copper tycoons. But the law was overturned last year by the Supreme Court, and special-interest money is again flooding Montana.
This time, it isn’t coming from mining interests or Wall Street, but from a very different source: downtown Washington.
A half-dozen organizations, all within a few blocks of the White House, have spent more than $7 million in Montana’s gubernatorial race, including the Republican Governors Association (RGA), the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), the National Education Association and several other major labor unions.
Both candidates in the tight contest — Steve Bullock, the state’s Democratic attorney general, and Republican former congressman Rick Hill — will be outspent several times over by the interest groups. And both say that the spending is out of balance.
The RGA, which is backing Hill, has spent more than $4.2 million in the state, compared with the $1.4 million Hill has raised for his campaign. (Donations to gubernatorial candidates are capped at $630.)
Bullock had benefited from $1.7 million in DGA spending as of Oct. 1 and $884,000 from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a government workers union.
The two governors associations, political organizations headed by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), can accept donations of any size for campaigns, with most of their funding coming from corporations. The groups have long played roles in elections, but since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, they are freer to use corporate funds and run harder-hitting ads.
The swell of money into Montana comes as the state is in the midst of a boom in natural resources, and many companies drilling for oil in the eastern part of the state are major donors to the RGA. However, officials at the organization say the corporate money goes into the RGA’s general fund and is not spent in Montana because the legality of giving corporate funds to the state Republican Party is still murky.
Among those contributors is Exxon Mobil, which has donated $500,000 to the RGA in the past two years, compared with $175,000 to the DGA. The company announced a $1.6 billion deal in September to buy oil assets in Montana and North Dakota. Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said the company does not direct the RGA to spend money on certain races.
Overall, companies invested in Montana oil have given $1.7 million to the RGA and less than $400,000 to the DGA during this election cycle.
Montana’s history with corporate money was captured in the 1912 law, the Corrupt Practices Act, which voters adopted after a series of blatant displays of political muscle. In one instance, a copper-mining trust forced the legislature into a special session to pass company-written legislation circumventing judges who had been loyal to its rivals.
After the Citizens United decision, Montana did more than any other state to resist the finding that corporations can spend unlimited money on elections.
Montana’s high court upheld the 1912 law late last year, saying the unique circumstances of a small-population state with rich resources justified restrictions on corporate politicking, even under the new precedent. But the U.S. Supreme Court summarily reversed the state court in June.
“For 100 years, it’s a law that served Montana well,” said Bullock, who as attorney general defended the law before the state Supreme Court. “At one time in Montana, our elected officials were literally bought and owned by companies.”
That theme has found its way into labor-funded ads for Bullock. One shows a couple at a pizza parlor ordering a “Lobbyist Rick Hill Special” with toppings of Medicare cuts, corporate tax breaks and a state sales tax.
Republicans say the outside help Bullock is getting belies his rhetoric on campaign spending.
“If he was going to be totally consistent with his alleged principles,” said the RGA’s Mike Schrimpf, “he would be telling the DGA and the unions to pull their ads off TV.”
Bullock said, “If I had my druthers, there wouldn’t be any outside spending.”
The race has focused on the state’s budget surplus, education and other issues, but Republicans have made it a point to attack Bullock’s record on energy development.
“Why do extreme environmentalists support Steve Bullock?” a narrator in one RGA ad says over footage showing a train of empty coal cars. “Maybe it’s because Bullock supports their agenda of more government control over our rights.”
Bullock has said he favors expanding the industry. At one point, he told a local TV station that the state should reexamine its policy of charging no taxes for the first 18 months of oil well production, but in an interview he said new taxes aren’t necessary at the moment.
In addition to the Bullock-Hill contest, Montana is home to a high-profile Senate race between Sen. Jon Tester (D) and Rep. Denny Rehberg (R), a campaign that has drawn well over $10 million in spending from interest groups — almost all of it, again, moving through Washington.
Television airtime is cheap in Montana, making it easy for outsiders to blanket the state with ads.
The state high court cited the inexpensive airtime and the low limit on gubernatorial campaign donations when it upheld the corporate spending ban, writing that Montana is “especially vulnerable to continued efforts of corporate control to the detriment of democracy and the republican form of government.”
Hill, breaking with most Washington partisans, says he doesn’t believe that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling to allow unlimited spending was a “correct decision,” adding that the “almost vulgar” and “certainly disgusting” ads against him are fostering a bad political culture.
“These people can come in and do a hit job on someone and be gone,” Hill said. “They don’t have to sit down at the table afterward — these kinds of campaigns are destroying relationships.”