Voters, Here It Comes

Bullock-Daines will be a race to the bottom of the dark-money sewer

By Dave Skinner

Loyal readers, it turns out I was right after all. Latish July last summer, I wrote a column promising I’d try not to write about the perpetual political horse-racing “at least until after Steve Bullock has announced his new campaign.”

Called that one, didn’t I?

To be honest, the Democrats who filed to run against Republican incumbent Sen. Steve Daines were non-entities for the most part, with almost-zero money and less-than-zero name recognition. Now, it’s a race – to the bottom of the dark-money sewer. No matter who “wins,” and I believe Daines will “win,” Montana voters are gonna lose.

See, same as in 2018, this upcoming Senate race isn’t about what Montana wants. It’s all about the balance of power inside the Beltway, more specifically whether or not Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) will grab power from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky). The real prize is a majority of 51 Senate votes needed to call the shots on judicial appointments, as well as control committees that set the agenda on a couple trillion bucks a year of federal budget.

As of 2018, Montana had 711,000 or so registered voters, 509,000 who voted in November, who have the exclusive right to pick two U.S. senators. By contrast, dear sweet California has 19 million registered voters for their two Senate seats. On the flip side, Montana only gets to pick one Congresscritter (of 435), while California picks 53. Now, if you’re looking to buy a Senate seat on the cheap, where will your money go? To Montana – but not to the candidate, nor even to the party, but to unlimited, unregulated and often secret “independent expenditures.”

It’s important to understand that outside money, gathered in huge checks from America’s economic elite, now dominates American politics. According to the CATO think tank, for example, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump raised and spent a combined $957 million themselves, outside “independent” groups gathered and spent more – another $1.425 BILLION.

So, we should all expect an utter tsunami of out-of-state political poison to flood Montana, flooding out not just our down-ballot (but still important, to us) races, but Montana businesses that need advertising to survive.

Don’t expect either Congress or the Montana Legislature to fix this mess in time. Most politicians care about dark money only when it’s spent against them – if it’s “for,” they’re secretly delighted because that’s one less fundraising call they have to make, or donor to disclose – and if it’s super-sleazy, they get plausible deniability. As for Montana’s latest campaign finance “reform,” it’s a joke, utterly useless and ineffectual against the real crooks in Montana politics – secretive federal operators working totally in the dark thanks to federal law.

Don’t imagine these operatives give a darn about Montana’s best interests. A couple of months ago, I was doing research into a $633-million-per-year dark money empire, run by a cousin of a former Flathead state senator. Its model, as Tiffany Muller of End Citizens United explained to the New York Times, is to create groups with “really innocuous-sounding names, like Americans for a Better America.” The reason, she said, was while voters “really dislike dark money […and political ads, they…] trust outside-group ads more than they trust candidate ads.”

So, who could help Montana voters this election?

I guess I’d like to issue a challenge to Montana’s broadcasters and print media. Instead of just passively laying back to enjoy what is sure to be a thundering flood of dark money ad revenues, as happened in 2018, Montana’s “news” purveyors might consider investing some of that sleazy bonanza into, say, hiring a few reporters who can not only run a calculator and a spreadsheet, but are actually interested in well-informing Montana’s electorate.

Or, how about establishing company policies requiring a nice, simple “cancer warning label” – necessary only if “The Purchaser of this Political Advertisement Does Not Disclose Its Donors over $50,000?” No need for censorship, just require a percentage of the print space or the last seconds of the spot for a label warning of dark money’s cancerous effects on our Republic.

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