HELENA — In Kalispell state Sen. Bruce Tutvedt’s primary race last year, he was targeted by 10 separate campaign mailers attacking the longtime Republican as a tax-raising, job-killing friend of “Obamacare” and tool of big utilities.
“I have no idea who their supporters were, who they really were, or what their issue was,” he said. “They just threw mud as hard and as fast as they could.”
The attacks came primarily from obscure nonprofit groups that don’t disclose their donors or, in many cases, their spending — so-called “dark money” groups that have become a growing part of politics in Montana and the nation.
Tutvedt wasn’t the only Montana candidate targeted by dark-money attacks, which went after candidates of all political persuasions, including Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
That’s why Tutvedt and others are hoping the Legislature — and Bullock — will support an upcoming bill to force dark-money groups to report their donors and spending, and, in the long run, put candidates more in control of their own race.
Republican state Sen. Jim Peterson of Buffalo is sponsoring the measure, which will substantially rewrite Montana’s campaign finance and reporting laws.
It not only would require all groups that spend money on elections to report their donors and spending, but also would allow individuals and political parties to give more money directly to candidates – money that is more easily tracked and reported.
“What we’re trying to do here is find some bipartisan ground that we can all land on,” Peterson said. “We’re trying to level the playing field and make sure everybody is operating in the sunlight, and essentially eliminate the dark money.”
Peterson has been working on the bill for several weeks and may introduce it this week.
He’s also been talking with Bullock and his staff, with the hope of getting the governor’s support.
Kevin O’Brien, deputy chief of staff for Bullock, said Friday the governor’s office has been in “active discussions” with Peterson about the bill, and that Bullock is committed to enacting legislation that brings “dark money” out into the open.
“There is much more agreement than disagreement,” O’Brien said of the governor’s talks with Peterson about the bill. “The governor believes he and Senator Peterson have shared values and a strong desire to protect our elections and our democratic process, and have found a great deal of common ground.”
Under current law, groups often avoid campaign-reporting requirements by financing “issue” ads or mailers that attack a candidate but don’t say explicitly to vote for or against them.
The groups argue they’re merely educating voters, rather than advocating for or against a candidate, and therefore aren’t subject to reporting requirements.
Peterson’s bill, however, will say any group financing any ad, mailer, telephone call or other “electioneering communication” that mentions any candidate within 60 days of the election must report its donors and spending.
Peterson also wants to raise the contribution limits for people, political committees and political parties giving directly to candidates for state office. For example, the current draft of the bill raises the ceiling for a single contribution to a gubernatorial candidate from $630 to $2,000, and for state Senate candidates from $160 to $500.
Raising these limits will reduce the role of secret money from outside groups, because candidates will be able to raise more money from sources that must report their donations, and less in need of help from outside groups, Peterson argued.
“We are raising the contribution limits to make it easier for candidates to raise money, and not feel like they have to go to the sidelines to raise money,” he said. “It allows a candidate to run his own show.”
Whether Republican leadership in the Senate will support Peterson’s bill remains to be seen.
Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, said in a recent interview there needs to be a “level playing field in terms of campaign finance reform,” but that he hadn’t seen the details of Peterson’s bill.
A spokesman for Essmann said Friday that Senate Republican leadership will present its own bill addressing “campaign finance-related concerns that have been raised,” but provided no details.
Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, is the treasurer of Montana Growth Network, a nonprofit group that last year spent money on ads criticizing Supreme Court candidate Ed Sheehy and supporting some legislative candidates.
It did not report its fall spending on the Supreme Court race, saying it was educating voters about an issue and therefore doesn’t have to report. It also does not reveal its financial supporters.
Priest said he’s not opposed to “changing the rules” on campaign finance-reporting, as long as the change affects everyone equally. He said he wouldn’t speculate on what campaign finance bill he might support.
“If you’re asking me if disclosure (of campaign spending and donors) is a good thing, my gut tells me disclosure is a good thing,” he added. “It’s especially a good thing if everybody plays by the same rules.”
Tutvedt said last week he’ll be a strong supporter of Peterson’s bill and thinks it can attract bipartisan support.
“It goes at the core of dark money and the lack of transparency,” he said. “If you want to attack or advocate for somebody, you’re going to have to attach your name or have a transparent donor list to show who is advocating for or against a candidate or an initiative.
”I think the citizens of Montana are tired of all the mud and dirt that’s being thrown, and we’ll see a bipartisan effort to make this a more transparent, information-based election process.”