HELENA (AP) – Montana Democrats learned this week that culling through pages of Republican campaign donors to find political ammunition to use against opponents is a tricky business that can help but also backfire.
Democrats had to backpedal from a news release that insinuated a donor to gubernatorial hopeful Roy Brown was a tax cheat and had to explain why Gov. Brian Schweitzer had earlier sought donations from the same man. Meanwhile, the Republicans claimed this week that the governor took money from two unsavory donors.
Political experts say these campaign tactics are common and will likely continue as the election nears, although they noted it’s rather early to start the nasty back-and-forth.
“If this continues, it’s not going to be pretty by the time we get to the general election,” said Craig Wilson, a political scientist at Montana State University-Billings.
Searching through donor lists might be more popular than ever as a campaign tactic after the success last election cycle, when Democrats worked to connect former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns and others to Jack Abramoff, a convicted GOP lobbyist.
Although Burns was never charged, political experts say the Abramoff scandal did not help his chances in a close race with Democrat Jon Tester, who won by a slim margin.
In the most recent donor flap, Billings resident William Fulton ended up the headliner in a Democratic news release noting he had donated to Brown and had a “tax evasion past.” In fact, Fulton says he is not connected to his father’s business, which owed the back taxes.
Democrats have since backed away from their claims.
Democratic Party Chairman Dennis McDonald stopped short of apologizing to Fulton because he said there was sufficient confusion on corporate filings of the Fulton Fuel Co., even though he believes Fulton is not involved with the company after the two spoke by phone Thursday.
“I believe him when he says he hasn’t been involved (in the company),” McDonald said.
Fulton just wants the whole episode to go away — as do McDonald and the Democrats.
“I don’t have a problem with Brian Schweitzer. I consider myself a pretty moderate person,” Fulton said. “I don’t need this kind of deal. I don’t like seeing my name in the newspaper.”
Fulton said he found it ironic that before the Democrats attacked him, they also asked for his money. He said he received a Schweitzer campaign donation request late last year, which was sent out to those who had contributed to Schweitzer’s 2004 Republican opponents.
Schweitzer’s campaign said it had no reason to dispute that Fulton received the request.
On Friday, Schweitzer said he did not see McDonald’s news release on Fulton and has only read about it in media reports. Schweitzer said it still appears unclear to him if Fulton has a connection to the Fulton Fuel Co. that was past due on state taxes.
Would Schweitzer take Fulton’s campaign donation if Fulton had responded to his campaign’s request for money?
“Absolutely,” Schweitzer said initially. After thinking about it a bit more, he said he would have to look at the donation if one came in.
In the Republicans’ release, which arrived just a few hours before the Fulton one, they made claims about two of the governor’s donors — saying they were unethical in past business dealings and campaign donations.
Schweitzer, who has 400 pages of donors in his most recent report, said he has no idea who those donors are and wishes the attacks and counterattacks “would just stop.”
The governor said he might ask Brown to agree to a clean campaign pledge that would extend to potential surrogates like the state political parties. Any breaches would require condemnation from both candidates, Schweitzer said.
According to Wilson, the political expert, “clean” is in the eye of the beholder and such pledges rarely stand up over the course of a campaign.
“In my book, a clean campaign pledge isn’t worth much,” Wilson said. “They are for publicity purposes more than anything else.”
Brown, who is a state senator from Billings, said he would have to take a look at what such a pledge would say. He said he remains upset about what he believes were unfair attacks from Democrats in past legislative races.
Schweitzer and Brown do agree on one thing — it is almost impossible for a candidate to investigate every donation before accepting it.
“It’s just like me, I don’t know who these people are,” Brown said. “I get a donation from somebody, I don’t do opposition research on my own donors.”
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