A mystery of the 2020 election was solved Tuesday as it became clear the Montana Republican Party paid for an effort to qualify the Montana Green Party for the ballot this election.
Earlier this year paid petitioners appeared in Montana's larger cities gathering signatures to qualify the Greens to run candidates this cycle, even though the Montana Green Party has made clear it did not do any work to qualify for the ballot this year and had not planned to run any candidates.
At that point, it appeared only one group, the political action committee Club for Growth Action, had filed with the state Commissioner of Political Practices to spend money to qualify a minor party. But in February that group said they told their vendor to stop any signature-gathering efforts and did not plan to submit any signatures.
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By March 6, however, the secretary of state qualified the Greens for the ballot because the petitioners had submitted enough signatures to do so. At that point, it was still unknown who paid for the effort. That's even with a new state law passed by the 2019 Legislature requiring anyone spending more than $500 to qualify a minor party to register with the commissioner within five days of the expenditure.
Green Party candidates can be seen as drawing votes away from Democrats, while Libertarian candidates, who are already qualified for the ballot, can draw votes from Republicans. Minor parties are running in major statewide and federal races here this year, and both parties have played a role in big elections before. In 2018 the Greens were briefly qualified for the ballot, in a paid effort whose funder still remains unclear, before Democrats sued and succeeded in removing the party by calling into question enough of the signatures used to qualify. And in the 2012 U.S. Senate race, featuring U.S. Sen. Tester and former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Libertarian candidate benefited from $500,000 worth of advertising from a group that also supported Tester.
In a Tuesday email, Katie Wenetta, a treasurer for a political committee called Montanans for Conservation, told Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan that the Montana Republican Party contracted with a company called Advanced Micro Targeting to hire the petitioners.
The Montana Republican Party made Montanans for Conservation an in-kind contribution totaling $100,000 on Feb. 20, Wenetta wrote, for the signature-gathering efforts. The committee would be required to report that spending by April 15, according to state campaign finance deadlines.
On Tuesday, Chuck Denowh, a political operative who works with Republican candidates, said he helped set up the committee in January and intended to register it as a minor party qualification committee, though it was actually registered as an independent committee. That made it difficult to identify as the group that worked to qualify the Greens. Denowh, however, contends the information has been publicly available since the start of the year.
Denowh also said the Montana Republican State Central Committee's payment to Advanced Micro Targeting, who hired the petitioners, was reported to the Federal Election Commission in February. That report shows the party spent $50,000, reporting the payment to "AMT" Jan. 21.
Montanans for Conservation, Denowh said, was unable to register as a minor party qualification committee because that wasn't set up as an option in a drop-down window on the Commissioner of Political Practices office's website.
Instead, Montanans for Conservation registered as an independent committee and noted in a section of the form asking which candidates or issues it supported in the 2020 election that it would "Support conservation-minded candidates (and) serve as the minor party qualification committee to qualify the Green Party to hold primary elections in Montana … "
The group officially changed its designation to a minor party qualification committee on Monday.
Denowh said he felt that complied with the new state law. He also said he contacted the commissioner's office in February about the issue of the drop-down options, though Mangan said Tuesday he had no knowledge Denowh ever contacted him.
"It was all above board. The committee was filed in January, that information has been publicly available on the commissioner's website since then," Denowh said. He did not say why he did not return a reporter's calls earlier this year asking if he was involved in the effort, however.
The Montana Democratic Party feels differently than Denowh. The party filed a complaint with the commissioner last week asking him to investigate and determine who contracted Advanced Micro Targeting and fine that committee for not following the new state law. On Tuesday the party called the move "election fraud" and "dirty tricks."
"The Republican Party contracted people to masquerade as Green Party members, and lied to Montanans in an effort to tamper with our elections,” said party executive director Sandi Luckey.
Luckey said she wanted top GOP candidates and elected officials to "answer for these political dirty tricks immediately" and said the Montana secretary of state should disqualify the Green Party.
The Montana Republican Party countered in an emailed statement from a spokesperson Tuesday. Previously the party had not responded to a call and text about whether they were involved in qualifying the Greens.
"While Montana Democrats and their liberal allies continue to actively engage in voter suppression by limiting ballot access for other minor political parties, the Montana Republican Party is openly supporting efforts that create additional options at the ballot box this November," the spokesperson said.
Doug Campbell, who ran as a Green Party U.S. House candidate in 2018, said at the start of March that Denowh had contacted him, first asking if Campbell could connect Denowh with the state Green Party and then again to recruit Campbell to run.
Campbell in early March said he was frustrated with major parties manipulating the Greens' access to the ballot. And while he said the new state law was an improvement, it was obviously still lacking significantly since it was unclear at that point who was behind hiring the petitioners.