Conservatives and anti-Tester liberals often feel the need to point out that while Rick Hill illegally attempted to spend a half a million dollars in the closing days of the gubernatorial race, Jon Tester, too, is tainted by anonymous money, never mind that he benefited from legal, anonymous money over which he had no control. They point to articles like “In Montana, Dark Money Helps Democrats Keep a Key Senate Seat“. The exact accusations and comparisons are fallacious, as we’ll see, but the greater point is accurate, and needs to be made: while casting campaign finance as a partisan issue may be good for fundraising and vote getting by the Democrats at election time, that same characterization can obscure the fact that Citizens United has had repercussions that are damaging for our Democracy regardless of your political inclination.
First, is the allegation accurate? Does the influence of outside groups reflect poorly on Jon Tester? Hardly. You may disagree with the League of Conservation Voters or Planned Parenthood, two of the largest groups donating to Tester, but their goals are still pretty well defined and the organizations are well known, even if their funding is anonymous. More importantly, Tester did not actually receive the greater amount of outside funding – the GOP had a slight edge in outside donors, and spent far more money from anonymous donors (this admission from the article proclaiming that ‘Dark Money’ had helped Tester get elected…). Nationwide, the ratio is even more skewed: 84 percent of anonymous money went to openly conservative groups. And finally, unlike Jon Tester, Rick Hill had a choice: Stand up for Montana’s laws rather than benefit from outside spending. Tim Fox did so, and its safe to say the move paid off. Tester had no control over outside spending, of course – if he had contact with the groups spending on his behalf, he would be breaking the law. And blaming ‘Montana Hunters and Anglers’, whoever they are, for Denny losing the libertarian vote is like complaining that the National Enquirer brought down John Edwards: they merely broadcast Rehberg’s anti-libertarian stances; he has to take responsibility for taking them.
But the point still stands – outside funding of campaigns is not a partisan issue. This cycle Montana, because it had a competitive race and small population, was the hardest hit by political ads, many of which were outside-funded, and the volume and negativity of which hurt both candidates by making voters cynical and apathetic. And this, whether by accident or design, is why both parties should oppose this kind of advertising. Countries with very high confidence in their governments, like China, spend millions of dollars on positive government news and propaganda. In the US, we allow unaffiliated groups to spend millions attacking the very people who will be running the country a few months down the road. Outside spending thus erodes confidence in the government, creates the impression, if not actuality, of corruption, and leaves our elected officials beholden to groups besides their constituents, and this is true whatever your party affiliation. Three quarters of Montanans have recognized this fact: hopefully the same number of Senators will remember it when they are approving Supreme Court Justices. And if we’re really lucky, perhaps our State legislature can start a real effort at constitutional change to address the issue.