A century ago this year, Montanans passed a voter initiative aimed at limiting the influence of corporations in political campaigns. At the time, the Copper Kings, moguls in mining, wielded unparalleled power in the state. Earlier this summer, the conservative nonprofit American Tradition Partnership successfully argued for the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down that law, opening the door for unlimited corporate spending in statewide and local races.
Now ATP is back for more.
Last week, it joined a coalition, including two county Republican committees, two oil companies and the Montana Right to Life Association, which is challenging Montana’s remaining campaign contribution limits. The case, now before a U.S. District Court judge in Helena, argues that the limits are unconstitutionally low and make effective campaigning in state races impossible.
Montana has some of the lowest campaign contribution limits in the nation. Some believe they compel candidates to seek broader support. The Montana Attorney General’s Office, in court documents, contends that there is “no evidence the...limits significantly restrict the amount of funding available to run competitive campaigns.”
District Judge Charles Lovell could return a ruling in the case as early as the end of September.
ATP has been chipping away at Montana’s campaign finance regulations for years. As a 501(c)(4) advocacy group, it can keep the identities of its donors secret. It doesn’t have to disclose campaign-related expenses either, unless they directly support or oppose a candidate. ATP has used political mailers in past state and local elections hoping to swing votes in favor of pro-energy-development candidates. The only political contribution the nonprofit has ever disclosed in the state was a $350 donation to the Montana Republican Party in 2010.
It bills itself as “grassroots lobbying organization dedicated to fighting environmental extremism and promoting responsible development and management of land, water and natural resources.” Founded in 2008 under the name Western Tradition Partnership by two Montana politicians, former Congressman Ron Marlenee and former state Rep. John Sinrud, it was registered first in Montana, then switched its registration to Colorado. In 2010, the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices ruled that ATP was a political action committee—a PAC—which meant it had to report its donors and spending. ATP is appealing that ruling in court. 2010 was also the year the group changed its name.
ATP public relations director Donald Ferguson did not return calls seeking comment about the group. Court proceedings this summer, however, have shed light on more than its war against campaign contribution laws. In a case argued before the U.S. District Court in Colorado, coal company Alpha Natural Resources voluntarily surrendered its anonymity as an ATP donor.
Alpha, along with Arch Coal, is one of the leading coal producers in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, and distributes coal to coal-fired facilities throughout the western United States. The company also owns eastern coal extractor Massey Energy. It claims online to be “the world’s third largest metallurgical coal supplier,” and donated heavily to a number of political groups this year, including $100,000 to the Karl Rove-backed Super PAC American Crossroads and $5,000 to Rep. Denny Rehberg’s Senate campaign.
Some of ATP’s claims about its primary mission were refuted by the Montana Supreme Court in 2011. Western Tradition Partnership had sued the state, alleging that the spending protections extended to corporations in Citizens United rendered Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act unconstitutional. Based on the dearth of information offered on the nonprofit itself, the court reached the conclusion that WTP’s primary purpose was “to act as a conduit of funds for persons and entities including corporations who want to spend money anonymously to influence Montana elections.”
ATP’s latest challenge could nullify existing limits on campaign contributions from individual donors and remove such limits entirely for political parties and PACs. GOP committees in Lake and Beaverhead counties have joined the suit in the hopes of toppling the aggregate limits placed on party contributions to legislative and gubernatorial candidates—limits they argue unfairly restrict political free speech. James Bopp, Jr., the attorney for the plaintiffs, also was a legal advisor for the group Citizens United in its successful challenge to federal campaign spending restrictions and has led similar challenges at various levels nationwide.
“They want the parties to be very strong, and any place where political parties are being limited, they’re going after restrictions,” says Edwin Bender, executive director of the Helena-based National Institute on Money in State Politics and an expert witness in last week’s hearing. “They’re arguing that regulation of political speech has gone too far, and it’s a fundamental First Amendment issue that they should be able, if they [have] the wherewithal, to speak louder.”
Like the Corrupt Practices Act, the current contribution limits in Montana were passed by citizen initiatives, in 1992 and 1994. Three times in the last century, Montana voters acknowledged a need to keep elections out of the hands of a few moneyed interests. This fall, citizens will again vote on a ballot initiative, I-166, aimed at restricting corporate spending in elections by urging Congress to overturn Citizens United.