Record Spending in Senate Race Topped $47 Million

By Beacon Staff

The price tag on Montana’s bruising U.S. Senate race topped $47 million, easily making it the most expensive in state history following unprecedented candidate spending plus more than $25 million poured on by unions, business groups and partisan committees.

Campaign finance records obtained from the campaigns by The Associated Press show Democrat Jon Tester spent $13.1 million, culminating in a four-point Election Day victory and a second term. Republican challenger Rep. Denny Rehberg spent $8.3 million in his failed bid.

The total spent blows past Montana’s previous spending record from 2006, when Tester narrowly beat incumbent Conrad Burns after the two spent more than $14 million. Outside spending by party committees and interest groups in that race was about $3.5 million, according to political analyst Craig Wilson at Montana State University, Billings.

For the 2012 election, candidate spending was eclipsed by outside money that set a bitter tone with a torrent of negative advertisements intended to tear down the two candidates.

According to a review of federal campaign filings by The Associated Press, 92 percent of the outside spending in 2012 went to opposition campaigning.

“The main difference, the growth in spending, was mostly from the outside groups,” said David Parker, a political analyst from Montana State University who is working on a book about the 2012 senate campaign. “Certainly it made the campaign more negative than it otherwise would have been.”

The race was closely-tracked nationally as among a handful of contests that could have given Republicans control of the Senate, a goal they failed to achieve.

The total spending translates into about $97 for every vote cast in the race.

That far exceeds per-voter spending in another high profile Senate race that was dominated by outside spending: the battle between former Virginia governors Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen. Kaine emerged victorious in that race, which cost staggering $83 million, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

Yet because of Virginia’s larger population, that equals only about $22 per vote.

In Montana, the huge amounts of outside money not only set the tone, but also made it harder to track where the money was coming from, said MSU-Billings’ Wilson. And because of restrictions on coordination between campaigns and interest group, it also took control of the contest out of the hands of the candidates and their campaigns.

“It really degrades the impact of the candidate money and the party money,” said Wilson.

Among the top spenders on the anti-Tester side were the Karl Rove-affiliated group American Crossroads, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the little-known Freedom Fund North America, a Washington D.C-based group that dumped almost $500,000 into anti-Tester ads during the race’s closing days.

Spending heavily against Rehberg were the League of Conservation Voters, the Democrat-friendly Majority PAC and the Montana Hunters and Anglers Leadership Fund. Montana Hunters and Anglers also was reported to be behind ads promoting Libertarian Dan Cox as a spoiler who could take votes from Rehberg.

The $47 million total tally on the race doesn’t count advocacy advertisements put up by outside groups in 2011.

Those ads provided a preview of the campaign to come, linking Tester to the administration of President Barack Obama and criticizing Rehberg over mercury pollution, Parker said. But they fell under a campaign reporting loophole because they avoided certain words such as “defeat,” ”support,” or “vote for” that are considered electioneering.

If the 2011 ads were added in, it likely would bump up total spending by another $5 million or more, Parker said.

In Montana’s other federal race, the contest to replace Rehberg as the state’s sole member of the House of Representatives, Republican businessman Steve Daines, of Bozeman, and Democrat state Sen. Kim Gillan, of Billings, spent almost $3 million combined, according to FEC reports.

Daines won after outspending Gillan by a 2-to-1 margin, with $1.975 million for Daines and $975,000 for Gillan.

Political observers said the next race to keep an eye on will be the Democrat U.S. Sen. Max Baucus’s 2014 re-election campaign.

His challenger is not yet known. But Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, already has demonstrated his willingness to spend heavily to control his position.

During the 2008 election, Baucus spent more than $11 million as he cruised to victory over two relatively unknown opponents who raised and spent a combined $13,293 according to the Center for Responsive Politics.