For the past few weeks, Bryce Bennett has been knocking doors in Missoula for his state Senate campaign. A four-termer in the Montana House of Representatives, he’s accustomed to constituents talking about health care and education. But lately, he says, some have been raising the issue of campaign-finance law — and, more specifically, the criticism swirling around Republican U.S. Senate candidate Matt Rosendale.
“Clearly, our campaign-finance laws were intended to create campaigns that only receive a certain amount of money from individuals, so that nobody could be corrupted by an overwhelming amount of money coming from any individual,” Bennett says. “Matt has clearly found a way to sneak past the will of the voters of Montana, and we certainly have to do something about that.”
Over the past four months, a small collection of Republican donors from across the country, roughly two-dozen in all, have been helping Rosendale pay back a personal loan he made to his unsuccessful 2014 U.S. House campaign. The contributions, made to his 2018 Senate committee and earmarked for debt retirement, come from the likes of oil tycoon Wayne Laufer, political consultant Roy Pfautch and Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus. These out-of-staters’ awareness of Rosendale’s outstanding debt to himself was no coincidence. Before the June primary, his campaign produced a contribution form — obtained by the Daily Beast and posted online — directing recipients to the 2014 debt retirement and informing them that any donations to that cause would raise their allowable maximum individual contribution from $5,400 to $8,000, or $16,000 per couple.
On May 14, Rosendale put those debt-retirement collections to use, reporting a loan repayment of $32,831. The next day, May 15, Rosendale made a personal loan of $32,831 to his 2018 Senate committee.
In the month since Rosendale made that loan, 14 more donors have contributed an additional $35,000 toward his debt retirement, including San Francisco philanthropist Diane “Dede” Wilsey and former Occidental Petroleum CEO Stephen Chazen.
The amount and timing of the repayment and loan transactions have fueled a series of allegations and attacks by Democrats and campaign-finance reform advocates. The Montana Democratic Party referred to Rosendale’s actions as “shady” and “sleight-of-hand” and accused him of “cooking the books” — a line repeated last week by incumbent Sen. Jon Tester’s campaign. The political action committee End Citizens United compared the Rosendale campaign’s accounting to money laundering, and during a press call last week that included Bennett, End Citizens United President Tiffany Muller called it “an end-run around the law.”
“Matt Rosendale’s intent was clearly to help high-dollar donors avoid limits,” Muller said, “and he’s trying to deceive voters while skirting the law.”
In an emailed statement to the Indy, a spokesperson for Rosendale’s campaign defended the debt repayment and loan activity as legal before criticizing the amount of outside spending — more than $1 million to date — in support of Tester:
“Matt Rosendale’s following the law. The real question is: When will Jon Tester be held accountable for publicly railing against out of state SuperPACs and dark money when he’s been the beneficiary of millions upon millions of dollars of this exact same cash. It’s the height of hypocrisy and the people of Montana are sick and tired of his two-faced antics.”
Those chastising Rosendale acknowledge that the transactions do not violate campaign law, though Muller questioned in the July 18 call with reporters whether Rosendale’s intent to loan his Senate campaign an amount equal to the debt repayment was communicated to donors. She added that, legal or not, Rosendale should return the money or donate it to charity.
For Bennett, who has sponsored several successful election-related measures during his legislative tenure, Rosendale’s actions highlight a loophole in campaign-finance laws that he believes should be closed. Bennett says he’s seen “very blatant and heinous efforts to undermine our election laws” in the past, but not Rosendale’s tactic. According to End Citizens United spokesperson Anne Feldman, “it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen.”
“We have to return to common sense and the idea that every individual should only be able to give the same amount,” Bennett says. “We have to find a way to close down any opportunities for people to sneak extra money into their campaign coffers from out of state donors because of this ridiculous loophole.”