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Democrats have gone negative in the key legislative districts statewide, accusing Republicans of coddling criminals, cozying up to polygamists and raising taxes.

Voters in legislative districts where political races are believed to be tight say they're receiving fliers and phone calls attacking Republican candidates. Often the people making the calls fail to identify with whom they're affiliated, provide unverifiable names or hang up.

The calls made earlier this week were placed in Billings, Bozeman, Plains and south-central Montana.

Echo Jamieson, a Billings stay-at-home mom, said she got nowhere Monday when she asked a man repeatedly calling her about Republican Jack Sands to identify himself. Sands is running against Rep. Gary Branae, a Democrat, who is trying to cross over to the Senate. The gist of the call, she said, was that Sands supports drug dealers and wants to keep them out of prison.

"It was a slander call against Jack from what I could tell," Jamieson said. "You never know who it could have been. It was every hour all night long. We don't even have any Jack Sands signs in our yard."

Jamieson said she called the Republican to let him know what was going on. She wasn't the only one.

"Some anonymous callers are calling all over the district indicating that I'm involved with meth dealers," said Sands, a trial lawyer who represents defendants in court.

But the calls don't make the distinction that Sands comes in contact with criminals as part of his job, the candidate said. Several people who contacted Sands told the candidate that the callers either identified themselves as working for Northwest Research or hung up.

What the callers didn't do was identify themselves as campaigners for the Montana Democratic Party, which is illegal, said Bridger Pierce, spokesman for the Montana GOP.

The Democrats were behind the calls, said Kevin O'Brien, spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party. He said the calls were made by volunteers, or Winning Connections, a telephone voter contact and advocacy firm based in Washington, D.C. The Gazette contacted a dozen voters who received the partisan calls. No one said the Democrats or Winning Connections was mentioned by callers.

O'Brien said the party used the calls as a follow-up to fliers it mailed out against Sands this week. Asked if he thought the campaign against Sands was negative, O'Brien said, "I'll leave it up to the voters to decide."

The flier says that "Sands has made a career of defending some of the most notorious criminals in Billings." Among other things, the ad sports Sands' photo, a dark ski mask, handgun and handcuffs. The content of the ad was approved by Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Art Noonan, who signed the flier.

"What we're doing is making sure that voters in that district know where he's at in his record in the community," said O'Brien. The flier also accused Sands of trying to permanently reduce school funding as a state lawmaker 21 years ago, which Sands refutes.

Jamieson said she was disappointed with the phone calls because she's always liked Sen. Gary Branae. The Democrat was her school counselor when she was a kid.

Branae said he called Noonan and asked that the Montana Democrats stop attacking his opponent.

"I'm furious. I don't believe in that stuff," Branae said.

In a heated race between Senate Majority Leader Lane Larson, D-Lockwood, and Republican Taylor Brown, R-Huntley, voters began receiving calls this week asking "would you still vote for Taylor Brown if you knew that he continued to employee a known polygamist at his radio station, even after it was revealed to him that the employee was married to two women at once?"

Brown's campaign manager Audrey Walleser-Barnard said the accusation stems from radio personality Dave Berg, who had a morning radio program on Brown's Northern Ag Network. Berg married his second wife before his divorce to his first was finalized. He was not in a polygamist relationship.

Berg, a conservative known for his sharp-tongued critiques of the Democrats, wasn't an employee, Walleser-Barnard said. He was a private contractor. The campaign calls also associate Brown with comments made on Berg's radio show, though the station broadcasts a disclaimer stating that the views of the host are not the views of the station.

Voters in Larson's district say that after associating Brown with polygamy, pollsters then ask if they'd be more or less likely to vote for Brown if they knew he owned a trophy hunting ranch, which Walleser-Barnard said Brown doesn't own. Brown's father owns a ranch where he charges hunters a fee if they shoot an antlered animal. He allows them to shoot cow elk and doe deer for free.

O'Brien said the Democrats were testing messages on potential voters in the Larson/Brown race. Last month, Republicans were asking voters in the district if they would be less likely to vote for Larsen if they knew he voted to double a state tax on cell phones. The tax doesn't exist.

Steve Schwartz of Huntley said the caller with whom he spoke this week wasn't concerned about his opinion and really just wanted to spread the message that Brown was OK with polygamy, pay hunting and radical talk radio.

"I said, 'I'm being push-polled aren't I? I can't believe it. I thought you guys stopped doing this stuff in the '50s,' " Schwartz said.

Democratic Party-paid companies also made calls targeting Republicans running in Senate District 7 in northwestern Montana and House District 63 in Bozeman. Both districts are key "swing" districts, where Republicans believe they can pick up a Democratic seat.

Katie French, a rancher in Paradise in SD7, said the caller asked her if she had a "favorable" impression of Republican candidate Greg Hinkle, and when she said yes, began asking negative questions about Hinkle.

When one of the questions said that Hinkle, a staunch conservative, favored increasing taxes, French said she knew the caller was making bogus claims.

"I said, 'That's not true at all, and I want your name and your supervisor's name, so I can call them and let them know this information is dishonest,' " French said. "And then they hung up on me."

French said the caller earlier identified herself as working for Northwest Research Group.

Hinkle, a furniture maker from Thompson Falls, is opposing Democrat Paul Clark of Trout Creek in this open seat.

Clark said he received one of the calls himself, and that he's had to write letters to local newspapers telling people the calls aren't coming from his campaign.

"If there's anything I can do to make them stop, I will," Clark said. "It doesn't help me; it hurts me."

In Bozeman, Karen Pfaehler, a member of the state Republican Party executive board, said she received a call this week from someone attacking Tom Burnett, the Republican running in HD63 against Democratic Rep. J.P. Pomnichowski.

"She asked for me and said, 'Let me tell you why Tom Burnett is bad for Montana,' " Pfaehler said. "She just launched right into it. … It was just nasty."

The caller said she was working for WC Research, Pfaehler said.

Gazette State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison contributed to this report.

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