It Keeps Getting Bigger

Are we finally reaching a breaking point?

By Kellyn Brown

In 2012, when incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester faced off against then Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg, we had a great idea: We would ask our printer to hold the presses as long as possible so we could get the election results in that Wednesday’s print edition. We stayed at the office until 2 a.m. No winner was declared.

The cover of the Nov. 7, 2012 edition of the Beacon featured a picture of Tester and the words: “Nailbiter: The most expensive race in Montana history comes down to the wire.” The secondary headline referenced the gubernatorial contest and only added to the front-page ambiguity. It read: “Too Close to Call: Bullock and Hill battle in governor race.”

Since then, I have never asked our printer to stop any of their presses and probably never will. Now, we simply report election numbers online as they come in and use the newspaper for longer and more measured analysis.

In the run-up to that election, I moderated a debate for each of those high-profile races. I was eight years younger, nervous and my voice cracked as I opened each program. I had prepared copious notes and made it through without too much embarrassment. At the time, I thought that was as big as local politics could possibly get.

In the Tester-Rehberg race alone, the candidates and outside groups spent an unprecedented and record-breaking $47 million. Tester eventually held onto his seat by 18,000 votes. Steve Bullock also eked out a victory over Rick Hill. The results, announced much later than our 2 a.m. deadline, marked the end of our most contentious election season during which Montanans, for months, were flooded with advertisements.

Then it got bigger, became more personal and cost even more money. This time, in 2018, Tester was facing Matt Rosendale, but he had another challenger: Donald Trump. The president, irked that Tester had torpedoed his choice to lead Veterans Affairs, railed against the incumbent at four separate rallies in Great Falls, Billings, Missoula, and Bozeman. No president who was not up for reelection himself had ever campaigned as hard for one of our statewide candidates.

The price tag for the race soared. Spending on the midterm election surpassed $70 million, shattering the previous statewide record. Most of it came from outside groups that saturated our airwaves with attack ads. When the dust settled, and Tester held onto his seat, I thought there was no way that high-water mark would be topped — at least for another decade.

Try two years later. And it more than doubled.

The race between incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Bullock was inescapable. They had so much money they didn’t know where to spend it. Every medium — from television to radio to newspapers — was saturated with advertisements. Flyers overflowed out of our mailboxes. Unwanted texts dinged our phones multiple times a day.

When all is said and done, the estimated cost of the race by the combined campaigns and outside groups is expected to surpass $146 million — an unthinkable sum in a state with a population of just over 1 million people.

At one point, it was estimated that each of the campaigns and outside groups spent a total $184 on ads for each of the state’s 729,000 registered voters (not including mailers). The question is: Do we want it to continue this way?

Do we really want it to get bigger? Or are we finally reaching a breaking point?

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