Throughout the month of May, a Michigan-based political committee advocating for limits on federal power and spending invested tens of thousands of dollars in campaign flyers and radio ads backing Republican legislative candidates in three Montana primary races. That activity triggered a May 20 complaint to Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan — and, according to interviews conducted by Montana Free Press, caught two of the endorsed candidates by surprise.

The complaint, filed by Florence resident Von Daily, alleged that the Convention of States Political Fund (COSPF) failed to comply with state disclosure requirements when it distributed a mailer supporting Republican candidate Wayne Rusk in his campaign for the Bitterroot Valley’s House District 88. The mailer referred to Rusk as a “constitutional conservative,” citing his stances on gun rights, abortion and election integrity.

According to records furnished by a legal firm representing COSPF in response to Daily’s complaint, the group spent more than $48,400 on independent expenditures promoting Rusk’s candidacy through six separate flyers as well as radio ads on the Missoula-based AM station KGVO. Federal Communications Commission records confirm COSPF purchased ad time on KGVO for a four-week span from May 9 to June 6.

Mangan has yet to issue a decision on the complaint against COSPF. In its response, the fund defended its actions by citing a state regulation allowing political committees registered in other states to conduct campaign activities in Montana, provided they furnish the Commissioner of Political Practices’ office with copies of disclosure reports filed in their state of registration. Mangan’s office did receive such filings as part of COSPF’s response (submitted on its behalf by the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Godfrey & Kahn). Those filings indicate COSPF received the bulk of its funding directly from three other political committees: $60,000 from a group called Conservative Action for Idaho, which has been active in Republican legislative races in Idaho this year and has a website nearly identical to that of COSPF; $256,000 from a group called Conservative Action for America; and $350,000 from the political nonprofit Convention of States Action. COSPF did not respond to an email request for comment.

related

The expenditures came as a complete surprise to Rusk last month. A newcomer to legislative campaigning, he faces off June 7 against fellow first-time candidate Alan Lackey, the leader of local group called Stand Together for Freedom that criticized Ravalli County’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In an email to MTFP last week, Rusk wrote that he “had no hand in, nor knowledge of the ads that have been circulated on my behalf.”

“With that said,” Rusk continued, “I will also affirm that they are an accurate depiction of my conservative positions and my unwavering commitment to serve our county by representing them. So, to the extent that [COSPF] have influenced the race — if indeed they have — it has been with the truth.”

In the flyers supporting Rusk, COSPF primarily focused its messaging on abortion, gun rights, tax relief and transgender issues. Similar flyers promoting Rep. Ross Fitzgerald, R-Fairfield, and Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, in their respective primaries also zeroed in on those issues, noting votes by both incumbents on corresponding bills during the 2021 Legislature — among them House Bill 102, the campus gun law that was partially struck down in district court last December, and House Bill 112, which barred transgender athletes from participating on womens and girls sports teams in school.

But the Convention of States Political Fund’s name, as well as the lone mission-stating paragraph on its website, invoke a broader agenda that Republicans of varying stripes across the country remain divided on. That agenda centers on Article V of the U.S. Constitution, through which state legislatures can appeal to Congress to call a constitutional convention and, with the approval of three-fourths of those legislatures, ratify any proposed amendments. COSPF advocates for just such a convention, with the stated goals of imposing congressional term limits and limiting Congress’ fiscal and jurisdictional powers. The movement has attracted national conservative firebrands including U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; and political commentator Sean Hannity. The American Legislative Exchange Council has developed model policy for use by state lawmakers sympathetic to the COSPF agenda.

Over the past decade, proposed resolutions calling for such a convention have become a regular fixture at the Montana Legislature, though the issue has made it past committee only once. In that case, a joint resolution introduced in 2021 by Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, made it to the Senate floor for debate, but died there. Ellsworth, one of the three candidates supported by COSPF’s spending campaign this spring, was among the 26 state senators who voted to bring McGillvray’s resolution to the floor, and was also among the 31 senators who voted to indefinitely postpone the measure. 

Ellsworth did not return a request for comment on the recent spate of flyers and radio ads. In a phone interview with MTFP, Fitzgerald echoed Rusk’s surprise at the group’s interest in his candidacy, which he said was “totally unbeknownst to me.”

“I had no previous knowledge,” Fitzgerald said. “When I got the flyers, that’s when I found out about it. And then I was pleasantly surprised by the actual number of them.”

Fitzgerald added that, regarding his past votes on abortion, gun rights and the other issues mentioned, the COSPF flyers presented “a true version of the record.” As for the group itself, Fitzgerald said he considers it “friendly,” but hasn’t sought out any additional information beyond the conservative positions it staked out in its campaign literature. The convention of states agenda from which it derives its name, however, is an issue Fitzgerald said he’s “a little bit hesitant on,” and he expressed uncertainty about what constitutional changes COSPF is advocating.

“It’s kind of like [legislative] special sessions,” Fitzgerald said. “You narrow it down to one topic or one mission and then everybody signs off on that being as tight as it should be, otherwise it opens up a can of worms. I’m not sure I’m ready to take that risk just yet, even though there’s certainly some issues to talk about.”

Rusk was likewise hesitant to fully commit to the Article V cause. Last year, he spoke publicly against the prospect of calling a convention of states, both in public testimony at the Legislature and at a candidate appearance in the Bitterroot in November. During the latter, Rusk acknowledged the issue as one on which he and Lackey, his opponent, agreed.

“It’s not conservative,” he said of such a convention. “We have an amendment process. It’s slow on purpose. It’s inefficient on purpose. That’s what keeps that domestic tranquility and keeps those rights and privileges that we have while we try and remedy what we don’t.”

Rusk stood by his earlier assessment in his email to MTFP, but added that as the issue became more prominent in the race for HD 88, he “took pains” to study it further. While he still has questions about whether the Article V process would yield the results intended by those calling for it, he said he hasn’t ruled it out.

“To decide the thing at this point would, to me, be a disservice to the voters who, if I understand the role of representative properly, are hiring my conservative judgment as well as my conservative positions on the issues,” Rusk wrote.

latest stories

What does Montana’s ‘born-alive’ referendum have to do with abortion?

When voters review their ballots in November, the only mention of abortion they see will be in the eye-catching language of LR-131, a referendum on the Montana Born-Alive Infant Protection Act. But the measure’s actual link to abortion, according to medical professionals organizing against the referendum, is divorced from medical fact.

The divergent energy visions of Montana’s U.S. House candidates

U.S. House candidates Ryan Zinke and Monica Tranel have both worked on energy issues on public and private payrolls. Zinke, a Republican, underscores the importance of “American energy independence” and emphasizes the role of fossil fuels in that vision. Tranel, his Democrat challenger, prioritizes a transition to clean energy that “has to start quickly and…

Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...