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How Dark Money Helped Democrats Hold a Key Senate Seat

The 2012 U.S. Senate contest reveals why secret outside money became the biggest political trend of 2012.

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There are other lessons. Tester said the Montana race made clear that candidates will have to raise money sooner, and go up with TV ads faster. Although uncomfortable with outside money, Tester also said it's just the way things are now, even on the liberal side.

"I mean, look, they did it," he said. "And with as many ads that were against me, I was glad they did. But it needs to be transparent. I mean, everybody's needs to be transparent... It's important to know who's spending money on who so you know why they're doing it. And the way the system is set up right now, there is no transparency. Very little."

Campaign finance reformers agree that knowing who is behind a message helps people assess it.

One example: Two postcards sent to thousands of Montanans just before the election didn't include the required notice saying who paid for them. One said Rehberg had wasted "hundreds of millions of our tax dollars on pork barrel projects," and urged people to vote for Cox, "a champion for fiscal responsibility."

The other called Rehberg "the king of pork" and told people to vote for Cox.

Cox said he didn't send them. The bulk-mail permit on the postcards came back to a Las Vegas company called PDQ Printing, according to the U.S. Postal Service. In an online manual, PDQ describes itself as "Nevada's preeminent Union printer." No one there returned phone calls.

Greenwood, the head of the Montana Republican Party, filed a complaint with the FEC over the mailers. The complaint blames liberal groups and says they "engaged in a duplicitous strategy of supporting the libertarian candidate, Dan Cox, in a desperate attempt" to siphon votes from Rehberg.

More than likely, that complaint won't be resolved for years.

Greenwood said he didn't think disclosure was a cure-all. But he also said the current system marginalized political parties.

"Whether it's Montana Hunters and Anglers or (the conservative super PAC) American Crossroads, they are not responsive to the grassroots," Greenwood said. "These are the professionals and the money men who are not responsive at all to people. The system as it is now does not reflect what people want."

Besides picking between Tester and Rehberg, Montanans got a chance in this election to say how they want the system to work. On the ballot was an initiative — largely symbolic in light of recent court decisions — that declared that corporations are not human beings and banned corporate money in politics.

Gov. Schweitzer, a Democrat, and Bertelsen, the former Republican secretary of state, campaigned for the initiative. In a shocker for backers, almost 75 percent of voters supported it.

"I realized it absolutely didn't have any legal basis to do anything dramatic," said Bertelsen, who is 94. "But it's a case of saying, 'We don't like it.' I guess we could just sit down and not say a word. But the Supreme Court — I think they made a mistake. Money isn't speech, anyhow. It's just money."

 

Kim Barker is a reporter for ProPublica and a former Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where she studied, wrote and lectured on Pakistan and Afghanistan and U.S. policy.