On the Money Trail

By Beacon Staff

Most folks expect the race between incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D) and challenger Congressman Denny Rehberg (R) to be as much a nail-biter as the 2006 race between Tester and then-incumbent Conrad Burns.

With the Supreme Court taking limits off contributions for “independent expenditures,” 2012 should be the greatest election ever in terms of ad sales for Montana’s media trade. For we the people, though, I suspect it will be probably the worst ever.

Why? I’ve recently written about a couple of Congressional bills that I favor: HR-1581, and HR-1505. Both bills generated the expected reaction from environmentalists – the usual letters to the editor, guest columns, and comments statewide. Then along came a new twist:

An outfit called “Montana Hunters and Anglers Action” (HA Action) popped out of the woodwork, buying $200,000 worth of TV ads flogging Rehberg for his co-sponsorship of two bills that the Senate won’t touch and Obama won’t sign.

How, and why, does an organization come out of nowhere with 200 grand for what are top-tier professional ads? Was it a PAC? Some rich idealist? Passing the hat at the gun club? Or … have the Beltway bandits discovered Montana?

Shoot, they already have … remember Conrad Burns lost to Tester, at least in part because he was linked to slimeball lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Abramoff converted to righteousness in jail. Freshly rehabilitated, with a book to sell and nothing left to lose, Abramoff gave a horrifying interview to CBS’s “60 Minutes.” Among other things, Abramoff told America how the revolving door between K Street and Congress spins: Abramoff would hint to Congressional staffers (especially chiefs of staff) that they “consider coming working for us” as a lobbyist. From then on, as Abramoff bragged, “We owned them.”

It appears that HA Action is lobbying, or what lobbyists like to call strategic communications.”The website norehberglandgrab.com (along with mirror-website montanahuntersandanglers.com) was registered Oct. 21 to HA Action’s treasurer, Barrett Kaiser of Billings.

Ring a bell? It should: Mr. Kaiser rose to Montana state director during his 10 years working for Sen. Max Baucus. Now he’s a consultant. Using the same cellphone number he had when he worked for Max, Kaiser “provides strategic communications services across the West,” at what Politico termed a “Democratic consulting firm,” Hilltop Public Strategies.

Hmmm. I’m sure that when Mr. Kaiser agreed to become HA Action’s treasurer, he was fully aware that, as a 501(c)4 organization, HA Action won’t have to disclose its donors.

Another HA Action director is George Cooper, a former Cable News Network producer. After CNN, Cooper spent seven years at an environmental group. Now, he’s a lobbyist, senior vice president at Cauthen, Forbes and Williams, running “CFW’s strategic communications practice [working] closely with the firm’s clients to develop and implement effective public relations and media strategies.”

As for CFW itself, its core product is “strong working relationships with Members [including the Senate Finance Committee], as well as the Senate Democratic leadership, to help ensure that our clients’ needs are met.” That relationship is the stock in trade of CFW principal Jeffrey Forbes. Forbes “served most recently as the Democratic Staff Director for the US Senate Committee on Finance in 2003. Before assuming this role at the Committee, he served as chief of staff to Senator Max Baucus from 1999-2002.”

Now, all these fellows are doing is cashing in on their “experience.” Everybody does it. And with the Citizens United ruling taking the gloves off secretive independent expenditures by monied (not necessarily corporate) America, it probably makes sense for HA Action to hammer Rehberg hard and early with secret money of their own. The Democrats might be first out of the gate, but trust me, there’s going to be a thundering herd of Republicans along shortly.

So get ready. All voters, not only Montanans, should expect saturation advertising from “independent expenditure” groups to absolutely overwhelm advertising from the actual candidates in 2012.

I fear that after the “independent expenditure” groups have utterly slaughtered the reputations of the candidates, we will all be so disgusted about voting for the “lesser of two evils” – we’ll lack the energy needed to address a much greater evil.

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