A screenshot from a Sept. 25, 2018 TV ad by the dark money group, Majority Forward. Credit: YouTube

Group backing Democrat who decries dark money doesn’t disclose its donors

HELENA — A dark money group tied to a Democratic super PAC on Tuesday rolled out its first ad attacking Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Matt Rosendale.

According to Roll Call, the liberal dark money group Majority Forward is behind the 30-second spot, which highlights the fact that Rosendale moved to Montana from Maryland and pokes fun at Rosendale’s past claim that he’s a rancher.

Rosendale is challenging two-term incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in one of the nation’s most hotly contested races. Polls show the race is tight heading into the final weeks of the campaign before the Nov. 6 election, in a state Donald Trump won in 2016 by 20 points.

Nonprofit corporations organized under IRS 501(c)(4) tax code are considered “social welfare” groups, and can spend money in political campaigns without having to disclose the sources of their funding. Since their donors are anonymous, the groups are commonly known as “dark money” groups.

In June, a group called Senate Majority PAC announced that it had reserved TV airtime in nine states with competitive Senate races, including Montana. The group’s funders include hedge fund manager and philanthropist Donald Sussman, “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, and George Soros, the billionaire investor and liberal political activist.

Senate Majority PAC spokesman Chris Hayden said at the time that the group planned to spend “seven figures” in Montana.

Majority Forward spent $570,000 on the ad that began airing Sept. 25, and the group reserved an additional $708,000 worth of air time in Montana beginning Oct. 2, according to a media analytics report shared with Montana Free Press.

According to a report by the government watchdog group Center for Public Integrity, Senate Majority PAC spokesman Shripal Shah has described Majority Forward as “an allied organization” with “shared office space, shared staff.”

Tester has decried the role of dark money in campaigns, but that has not stopped dark money groups from supporting his Senate campaigns.

In 2012, a group called Montana Hunters and Anglers spent $500,000 in the waning days of the race between Tester and Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg on ads supporting the Libertarian candidate, Dan Cox. Some Republicans credit those ads with pushing Tester over the top in a close race.

While Montana Hunters and Anglers is not a 501(c)(4) dark money group, records show that its major donors in 2012 included groups that didn’t report their donors.

On Monday, Tester joined Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden in an effort to force a Senate vote on a bill that would undo a recent IRS rule change removing a requirement that 501(c)(4) groups report the sources of their funding to the agency. Until recently, 501(c)(4) groups were required to report their funding sources to the IRS, though those disclosures were not made public. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock sued the federal government to reverse that rule change.

Tester’s critics—including Rosendale’s campaign spokesman, Shane Scanlon—are calling Tester a “hypocrite” for benefitting from support from the very groups he claims to oppose.

“According to Jon Tester, there is not an issue more important to him than putting an end to dark money spending in our elections. The only problem is that at the very same time he’s railing against dark money, he’s also benefiting from it,” Scanlon said in a statement.

Tester’s campaign spokesman, Chris Meagher, dismissed the critique, noting that Tester has no control over whether outside groups spend on his behalf. Meagher also pointed out that Rosendale, while in the Montana Legislature, opposed passage of the 2015 DISCLOSE Act, which increases campaign finance transparency in state elections.

“There’s only one candidate in this race fighting to get dark money out of our elections, and that’s Jon Tester. Matt Rosendale is propped up by dark money and has time and time again sided with their interests and against transparency in our elections,” Meagher said.

Montana Free Press was founded by veteran award-winning investigative and political reporter John S. Adams. John was formerly the Capital Bureau Chief of the Great Falls Tribune and a correspondent for USA TODAY. John is known as a dogged investigator and the host of the MT Lowdown podcast whose unbiased reporting has changed the shape of Montana politics. Contact John at jadams@montanafreepress.org, or follow him on Twitter.