In a year of record spending in Montana's U.S. Senate race, another $6 million in outside money poured into the contest over just the last week, making it among the top races nationally with a flurry of money backing candidates and attacking others as the Nov. 6 election draws nearer.
According to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data done by the Washington Post, Montana ranks in the top six for U.S Senate races with the most outside spending in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 election. Total spending has topped $32 million and already this week more outside political groups, known as PACs and super-PACs, have announced additional ad blitzes aimed at capturing voters who haven't cast their ballot or made up their minds.
Incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, is seeking his third term against Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale. The election is expected to be close, with Tester up but within the margin of error in recent polls. Tester has never won an election with more than 50 percent of the vote.
Over the course of the campaign, Tester has far outraised Rosendale when it comes to contributions to his campaign, which are at about $20 million to just $5 million for Rosendale, according to FEC data.
The two are much more closely matched when it comes to outside spending, with the Associated Press last week putting spending by political groups backing Rosendale at about $19 million, to $16 million for groups supporting Tester.
And the money is still flowing. On Tuesday, Club for Growth Action Montana, announced another $1 million-plus anti-Tester ad buy that will run through Election Day. Earlier in the week a pro-Tester union group, the United Association, made a $500,000 ad buy in support of the senator.
Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist at Carroll College in Helena, said while there's been record outside spending in this race, it's not clear how much of an effect it will have.
“So much money has been spent it’s an open question about how much more money will really add on value for the candidates,” Johnson said. “There can be diminishing returns the more you spend.”
While other states have had more spending, money goes farther in Montana’s relativity cheap media market, meaning the state has been saturated with television, radio and print ads, all on top of the flyers filling mailboxes across Montana.
Johnson said while Rosendale has pulled in more than Tester when it comes to outside spending, that money is less efficient than cash raised by candidates. By law, candidates cannot coordinate with super PACs, so they have no control over the message of the ads or if they match the tone their campaign is trying to strike.
“Rosendale had to rely on a lot of outside money, more so than Tester did,” Johnson said. “He was at a disadvantage early on.”
However, Johnson said because Rosendale's campaign has relied on a message that isn't all that complicated — Rosendale's full support of President Donald Trump — the power of outside ads might not be as important or stray much from the campaign.
“Clearly he’s supportive of the Trump agenda. Trump is a central theme here. And there’s plenty of money to get that message out. Rosendale in some ways may not need a lot of money because he’s running on Trump,” Johnson said.
As of Tuesday morning, more than 220,500 ballots had been received by county election administrators. Johnson said that count could be half the votes in this election.
“They’re spending a lot of money on fewer and fewer potential voters,” Johnson said. However, those voters may be among those who are more persuadable, since sometimes people wait to vote because they haven't made up their minds.
In the last midterm year, 2014, there were 373,831 votes cast, but there are also more than 43,600 registered new voters this year. The total number of registered voters this year, 703,610 by Tuesday morning, is also a state record.
Most recent FEC reports for the candidates' fundraising combined with outside spending put the total money in the race so far at $60 million, the most ever in Montana. The last report filed in mid-October also showed Rosendale tapping a strategy he used earlier in the election to solicit contributions to pay off the debt for his failed primary 2014 bid for the U.S. House and then turn around and lend his 2018 campaign the same amount.
From May to September, Rosendale got $125,000 in contributions that went toward his 2014 debt. The majority of the money came from donors who had already given the maximum $5,400 for an individual.
Rosendale’s campaign paid $125,000 toward the 2014 debt on Oct. 5, and then on Oct. 10 Rosendale loaned his campaign $125,000. The move is believed by campaign finance watchdogs to be legal, but skirting the spirit of campaign finance laws.
Earlier this year, The Daily Beast reported Rosendale paid off $32,831 toward the 2014 debt and loaned the same amount back to the campaign. Rosendale is using the same campaign committee now as when he ran for House. FEC documents from 2017 show that Rosendale was still owed $236,693 from loans he made to his 2014 campaign.
At the time campaign finance watchdog Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center, called it “a potentially legal scheme to allow a handful of wealthy donors to give up to $8,000 each to support Rosendale’s campaign, when the limit for everyone else is $5,400.”