A group of moderate Republicans who denounce anonymous campaign spending in elections say their Political Action Committee, or PAC, plays by the rules.
PACs have been the source of so-called dark money over the last few elections cycles, and a lot of that spending in Montana has been aimed at helping more conservative Republicans win primary campaigns.
The moderates say this time they’re fighting back--in a transparent way.
“We think the extremists and their dark money groups have taken this party some place it doesn’t belong,” said Sen. Bruce Tutvdt (R-Kalispell), one of the leaders of the moderate lawmakers calling themselves “Responsible Republicans.”
That group broke away from conservative leadership to vote with Democrats on some of the biggest issues of the last legislative session. Conservatives like Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich (R-Bozeman) describe it as a betrayal, calling the moderates “crossover Republicans joining with Democrats to grow government.”
The divide between the two sides appears to be growing wider ahead of this June’s primary election.
The anonymous group American Tradition Partnership, or ATP, made headlines the last couple election cycles for blasting moderates in Republican primaries with negative campaign mailers and other ads. ATP has dropped off the radar since then, after accusations it was illegally coordinating with candidates.
Moderate Senator Tutvedt says it doesn’t matter if ATP plays a part in this election or not, a lot of the same forces will still be at play.
“They can sprout these things up in a heartbeat,” Tutvedt said of conservatives. “All they gotta do is find some dark money donor and away they go.”
“Frankly, I think you’re gonna see the fact that a lot of people criticizing dark money are hypocrites,” Sen. Wittich said. “They’re out there raising money, they’re going to spend money, they’ve been out recruiting candidates against conservatives legislators.”
The moderates do not shy away from the fact they are raising money for primary advertising, in fact they’re proud of it—calling their PAC a “light money” PAC.
“We want to be able to say, you know what, you can run a campaign properly, you can be honest, and Montana deserves that kind of politics,” he said.
They call it Montana Business Advocates for Sensible Elections, or Montana BASE PAC. Montana BASE has been filing detailed donor lists with state commissioner of political practices. Commissioner Jon Motl said it’s actually what all PACs should be doing.
“They are following the law where others may not be,” he said.
But that transparency actually brings up an interesting issue. Remember, PACs are supposed to be third-party groups—totally unaffiliated with a candidate’s campaign. That’s how American Tradition Partnership got in trouble, for working with candidates. If you look at the list of donors to the Montana BASE PAC (again, the PAC which will be fighting to elect moderate Republican candidates), the first person on that list is Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, donating $5000.
This list is packed with moderate GOP lawmakers, some who are running for re-election in this primary.
“I can’t be there, I can’t be on the committee, I shouldn’t have any prior knowledge of what they’re doing or what they’re mailing,” Tutvedt said describing the rules for candidates. He does not have to run this time around, so he’s not speaking directly for himself there.
This issue of illegal coordination between political committees and candidates also made news this week after two Washington D.C.-based nonprofits alleged such cooperation between Republican U.S. House candidate Ryan Zinke and a PAC he originally created.
Tutvedt said keeping the candidate’s campaigns completely separate from the PAC’s activity will be a tough balance.
“It’s gonna take a little evolution here to get this right,” Tutvedt said. “You want clean elections, but you want them to be able to function, you want people to be able to give advice, you want groups that do have a political reason to be.”
As for the tone of this light money PAC’s advertising, Tutvedt said a lot of it will be on the attack.
“Negative Campaigning is legal and negative campaigning works,” he said.
He believes Montana BASE should be able to accomplish its goals just by showing the voting records of conservatives. What a coincidence, that’s what Sen. Wittich with the conservatives said they want to do.
“Looking at people’s record, instead of trying to throw personal slights at one another and give the voters what they deserve,” he said.
One way or another, both sides will have money to spread that message.