When Montana Gov. Steve Bullock launched his bid last year for the Democratic presidential nomination, he said he aimed to “defeat the corrupt system that lets campaign money drown out the people’s voice.”
Though his White House effort flopped, Bullock’s money-in-politics messaging had deep roots, including his unsuccessful challenge, as Montana’s attorney general, to a landmark Supreme Court decision that led to unlimited-spending super PACs. Now, Bullock is taking on incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines in a pivotal race that could determine which party controls the chamber next year.
As outside groups, including super PACs, line up to spend money on the race, sources of political cash, as well as policies to limit or regulate it, will be a point of contention in the dueling campaigns.
The coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic calamity promise to take the spotlight in the race, but already political ads and campaign rhetoric aim to link campaign finance matters and the crisis.
“Voters need even more assurance that politicians are working for them, not corporate interests,” said Tiffany Muller, president and executive director of End Citizens United, a group that takes its name from the 2010 Supreme Court decision that Bullock challenged, Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission.
End Citizens United has endorsed Bullock and tracks which candidates and lawmakers have vowed to reject donations from the political action committees of corporations. Bullock has. Daines has not taken the pledge.
Daines has collected more than $3.6 million from business PACs during his congressional career, which includes his Senate term and a seat in the House before that, according to a tabulation by the Center for Responsive Politics. Bullock, who launched his Senate campaign in March, has disclosed donations from congressional leadership PACs as well as from PACs of industry groups, including $10,000 from the PAC of the trial lawyers lobby, American Association for Justice, FEC filings show.
In recent months, as Congress worked on legislation to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, Daines pushed for a provision in a relief measure that would help speed up production of potential coronavirus vaccines and treatments by dual tracking manufacturing with testing, said his top aide Jason Thielman, who is an adviser to the campaign.
In late March, after Congress passed that measure, PACs for such pharmaceutical companies as Merck, Pfizer and Sanofi contributed about $16,000 to Daines campaign, FEC records show.
Daines serves on the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over tax and health care matters — making it a magnet for industry and lobbyist donations for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Company PACs, not to be confused with super PACs, compile donations from corporate executives and can give candidates up to $5,000 per election, or $10,000 for a primary and general election. Super PACs, by contrast, can raise and spend unlimited amounts but are banned from coordinating directly with candidates.
One Democratic super PAC, known as Senate Majority PAC, has already spent about $700,000 in an ad attacking Daines for worrying more “about corporate profits” than individuals’ retirement funds or job losses amid the pandemic.
Although that super PAC, like all super PACs, may not coordinate with Bullock’s campaign directly, the Montana governor still benefits from such attacks on Daines, opening him to charges of hypocrisy when it comes to big political money matters.
“The last thing Bullock should want to talk about in this campaign is money and politics,” said Daines aide Thielman, who noted Bullock’s ties to organizations that engage in political spending including super PACs that have backed the governor. “It’s something [Bullock] uses as a distraction topic to whip up his own base.”
And though Daines largely sticks to his party’s line when it comes to campaign finance issues, he was instrumental in 2018 in mandating something that advocates for campaign finance reform had sought for years: electronic filing by Senate campaigns of all contributions and expenditures. Before that, Senate disclosures could be filed on paper, which had to be copied by Senate staff and shipped to the FEC, which paid contractors to type each line item into its online disclosure database. As chairman of the legislative branch appropriations subcommittee then, he included the provision in the panel’s bill, working with Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.
Daines is getting outside help, too.
Americans for Prosperity, part of the Koch political network, has endorsed the Republican and disclosed spending more than $140,000 on digital ads recently, FEC records show.
Thielman said he didn’t expect campaign finance to be a prominent issue in the Senate campaign, adding that jobs would be the focal point.
“Montana has been more impacted by job losses than any of its neighboring states,” he said.
Dark money history
Bullock, as governor, closed schools and businesses in response to the coronavirus, which killed 16 people in the state. That’s one of the lowest tolls in the country, and Bullock began relaxing the shutdown in late April.
Even with the economic woes stemming from the pandemic top of mind, Montana has a long history when it comes to political money matters.
It was the setting of the 2018 documentary “Dark Money,” which examined the influence of oftentimes undisclosed money spent on elections, including efforts to uncover the role of Koch-backed nonprofit organizations in the state.
Filmmaker Kimberly Reed, who is originally from the Big Sky state, said during a 2018 CQ Roll Call podcast that Bullock’s challenge served as an inspiration for the documentary. His role in that challenge, Reed said, helped him win his gubernatorial race, “in large part because he tackled this issue that was, I think, important to a lot of people in Montana.”
A March poll by Public Policy Polling found Daines and Bullock tied, 47-47. It also found that 54 percent of Montana voters say politicians support policies because they help corporations or groups that donate to them.
Bullock’s campaign, in an email statement to CQ Roll Call, said the governor planned to continue to raise the issue.
“As Governor, he worked across the aisle to pass one of the strongest campaign finance disclosure laws in the country,” the Bullock campaign said. “In the Senate, Governor Bullock will continue what he started here in Montana and put an end to the corrupting influence of money in our politics.”