HELENA — What would the race between U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and the Republican challenger for his seat, Rep. Denny Rehberg, look like if they had actually agreed to ban third-party ads and to return campaign donations from individuals living outside Montana?
The past two weeks' worth of proposals and counterproposals to ban out-of-state money ended up going nowhere, and an analysis of where the two sides are getting their cash may indicate why.
Tester hails from the central Montana farming community of Big Sandy, but you might believe he is from New York City based on where he gets his campaign money. And Rehberg could have a second home in Houston for all the campaign cash he collects there.
In a high-stakes race where control of the Senate lies in the balance, neither campaign may be able to afford to shrug off the millions pouring in from outside Montana as they try to woo the relatively small number of persuadable voters who are left in the state.
The Tester campaign said it needs to raise a lot to fend off third-party groups, such as the new super PACs that have so far been heavily favoring Republicans.
An Associated Press analysis of available fundraising reports from 2011 shows that both raked in large amounts of outside money through individual contributions. Somewhat surprisingly, given his attacks on Tester, it's Rehberg who collects a slightly higher percentage from out-of-state.
The Republican gets 78 percent of all his money collected through individual contributions from people who live outside Montana. Tester gets 73 percent of his money from nonresidents. The latest reports available for both looked at data reported for the first three quarters of 2011.
Rehberg shows $1.3 million from individual contributors, while Tester reeled in $3.1 million.
Tester has also been winning the money war in contributions collected from Montana - by a large amount. Tester reeled in $840,000 from Montana individual contributors, while Rehberg collected $286,000, according to the reports.
That money tally does not include political action committees and other non-individuals, almost all of which comes from out-of-state groups on both sides largely centered in Washington D.C.
The individual contributions tell a similar story.
Tester's top cities for fundraising are New York and Washington D.C., followed by Missoula and Billings. Rehberg's top city is his hometown of Billings - but it is quickly followed by Houston, Bozeman and New York.
Each has predictably railed about the source of the other's funds.
Rehberg has trashed Tester for collecting money from extremist New York environmentalists. But it turns out the Big Apple provides good hunting ground for the Republican, too.
Some Rehberg donors from New York City also have given donations to Democrats Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry and Montana's Max Baucus, according to FEC records.
That is not the norm, however. Most of the big-money sources are reliable partisans for one side or the other, according to records on campaign finance donations.
Political Scientist David Parker said the debate over out-of-state money isn't new. U.S. Senators make national policy, and so it only make sense they collect interest from allies everywhere.
But the problem is exacerbated in small population states like Montana where the outside money can loom larger.
"The fact of the matter is a lot of outside interests have an economic stake in the state. Frankly, this issue has roots back to Montana's founding," said Parker, a Montana State University professor. "I think the debate over outside money is a non-starter. The fact of the matter is both campaigns need outside money to win."
There may not be enough politically-minded money in all Montana to pay for the multi-million dollar slugfest.
It takes millions of dollars to effectively reach voters. Parker estimated the campaigns could jointly raise close to $20 million. Outside groups could spend another $15 million.
The political scientist estimates that only 20 percent of Montana's 500,000 voters are up for grabs in an election where both candidates are already well-known. Most of the money will be focused on that small percentage, while some of it will be spent rallying the base to the polls.
In the end, several hundred dollars could be spent per swing voter.
"Money works. You get higher turnout and more voter engagement," Parker said. "We are going to have a very expensive race in a state that has very cheap media. We are going to be inundated with people knocking on our doors, telephone calls, radio, television, everything, really."
The Tester campaign estimates that third party groups have so far spent $1.2 million attacking Tester, and $450,000 attacking Rehberg. But the Rehberg campaign counters the third-party money is about even when including ads offering support for a candidate. Both types of ads would have been banned in the scuttled deals.
"With Congressman Rehberg's secretive out-of-state allies pumping millions of dollars into Montana to distort Jon's record, our challenge is to level the playing field through transparent fundraising," said Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy. "It's what allows us to get the facts out about Jon's record of voting for Montana."
The Rehberg campaign blamed Tester for the failure to reach a mutual deal limiting the outside money, pointing to Tester's reliance on a larger war chest.
Both sides rejected an offer from the other. Rehberg offered the proposal that would have restricted the race to money just raised in Montana, while Tester sought to ban third-party attacks.
"Denny presented Sen. Tester with a simple, tough agreement to totally remove all outside money and make this a truly made in Montana race, but unfortunately Sen. Tester rejected it because he refuses to part with the large sum of money he's taken from lobbyists, PACs and out-of-state special interests," said Rehberg spokesman Chris Bond.