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NRA Involvement in MT Senate Race

MT GOP Senate Nominee Matt Rosendale—He May Have Illegally Colluded with the NRA September 23, 2018

The NRA. Yes, the National Rifle Association. Remember them? This group rightfully gets “credit” for killing (no pun intended) in Congress even the slightest effort to enact reasonable gun control reform no matter how many senseless massacres with assault weapons keep occurring. How? By giving “y uu ge” amounts to U.S. Congressmen and Senators, mainly GOPers. And anyone who opposes them in the slightest way risks political defeat. Many Democrats who helped enact an assault weapons ban during Bill Clinton’s presidency were defeated in 1994. The NRA then poured tons of money into the coffers of their GOP opponents who went on to capture the House. The NRA was also instrumental in helping the GOP win control of the House in 2010. Earlier this year, despite repeated denials, the NRA was forced to admit that it had accepted Russian money from nearly two dozen Kremlin-linked entities. Not long after the NRA admitted accepting these donations from this major foreign adversary, Russian national Maria Butina, a lifetime NRA member with ties to some of that group’s senior leadership, was arrested on suspicion of being a spy for Vladimir Putin’s government. The FEC, the Federal Election Commission, is reportedly looking into whether Russian entities gave illegal contributions to the NRA that were intended to benefit Trump’s campaign. The FBI is also reportedly investigating the NRA as a potential vehicle for Russian money laundering (See shareblue.com, Orr, 9/14/18).

The question of whether a GOP candidate in a hotly contested 2018 Senate race may have violated campaign finance law by illegally coordinating or colluding with the NRA has become a major issue. In an audio obtained and released by the “Daily Beast,” MT GOP Senate nominee Matt Rosendale can be heard bragging about his support from the NRA. In this audio, Rosendale told a crowd at a 7/2018 event that he knew in advance that the NRA was going to get into the MT Senate race with a major buy against Rosendale’s opponent, Dem. Senator Jon Tester. A man at this event asked Rosendale, “Have outside groups started spending on your behalf?” Rosendale affirmatively answered, “I fully expect the NRA is going to come in…in August sometime.” Rosendale added, “The Supreme Court confirmations are big. That’s what sent the NRA over the line. Because in ’12 (2012), with Republican Senate nominee Denny Rehberg they stayed out, they stayed out of Montana. But NRA political strategist Chris Cox told me, he’s like, ‘We’re going to be in this race (shareblue.com, Orr, 9/14/18, thedailybeast.com, Markay, 9/13/18).’” Rosendale was slightly off in terms of timing. Early in 9/2018, the NRA started spending heavily to support Rosendale’s bid to unseat Dem. Sen. Tester. According to records from the Federal Elections Commission, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA) spent more than $400,000 on ads hitting Tester over the precise issue Rosendale mentioned-- Tester’s votes on Supreme Court nominations (thedailyeast.com, Markay,9/13/18, shareblue.com, Orr, 9/14/18). Tester voted for Obama High Court nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan but against Trump’s Neil Gorsuch (AP Volz, 9/13/18). IMHO, a $400,000 plus buy in sparsely-populated MT constitutes politically contributing “big time.” Rosendale also stated in the audio that the right -wing Club for Growth has “come in for him” and that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would as well (CNN, Wright & Merica, 9/13/18).

Rosendale’s comments about speaking with NRA lobbyist Cox raises the issue of whether illegal coordination occurred between Rosendale and the NRA-ILA, an Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(4) non-profit group. Under federal law, candidates are barred from coordinating with independent political donors who dump dark money into elections on their behalf. Brendan Fischer, the director of Federal Election Commission reform programs for the Campaign Legal Center, stated that Rosendale’s remarks, together with the eventual ad campaign he alluded to, might satisfy the “three-pronged” legal test for impermissible coordination—payment, content, and conduct. The payment prong is satisfied because the ads were paid for by somebody other than Rosendale; the content prong is satisfied because the ads expressly advocate against the election of Rosendale’s opponent; and the conduct prong can be satisfied by Rosendale assenting to the request or suggestion of the entity paying for the ad: the NRA (thedailybeast.com, Markay, 9/13/18, shareblue.com, Orr, 9/14/18).

On 9/17/2018, Fischer’s group along with the Giffords gun-safety advocacy group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) asking it to investigate allegations of illegal campaign coordination between GOP U.S. Senate candidate Rosendale and the NRA (nytimes.com, AP, 9/17/18). Larry Noble, former FEC general counsel for 13 years, told CNN that Rosendale’s comments “clearly raise questions about whether the NRA illegally coordinated their ad campaign with Rosendale.” Sen. Tester’s campaign used Rosendale’s audio to cast him as an outsider. Tester’s communications director stated the audio raises “serious concerns about potential illegal coordination between Rosendale and outside, dark money groups coming into MT to support him (CNN, Wright & Merica).” Who is Matt Rosendale?

Baltimore, Maryland native Matt Rosendale (58), lived on a MT ranch for nearly 20 years. Before running for public office, he also worked in real estate development. He was a MT state representative from 2011-2013 and was a MT state senator from 2013-2017. He served as the state Senate Majority Leader from 2015-2016. He lost a GOP primary for the U.S. House in 2014 against current Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke. Rosendale now serves as MT’s State Auditor (apnews.com, sos.mt.gov/Elections/2014). When he announced his run for the U.S. Senate, Rosendale was endorsed by hard- line extremists Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton (greatfallstribune.com, 5/28/18). Rosendale stated he was running for the Senate to “fight back against ‘liberal D.C. insiders and big spenders (greatfallstribune.com).’” He is anti-choice. He has said that he will “never give up on repealing and replacing Obamacare.” Rosendale is a proud Trump conservative (greatfallstribune.com, mattformontana.com). He wants to support nominees to the Supreme Court such as Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, now accused of attempted sexual assault. Rosendale is all for Donald’s building a wall on our border with Mexico and believes the U.S. has been overrun by illegal immigrants (mattformontana.com). He is with the NRA in “fighting against any attempt by Washington bureaucrats to take away the right to own a gun when MT’s way of life is under assault (mattformontan.com).”

Plain-speaking two-term MT Senator Jon Tester (62) has deep state roots. He grew up in a farming family, on the same prairie land his grandparents homesteaded nearly a century ago, near the small town of Big Springs (pop. 703). His family ran a butcher shop behind their barn. At age 9, Tester lost three fingers on his left hand to a meat grinder. This accident changed Tester from a sax player to a trumpeter. He earned a music degree at the Univ. of Great Falls and taught music at a local elementary school. Tester then became a farmer, raising organic wheat, peas, and alfalfa. In 1982, he won election to the Big Sandy school board, serving for a decade. In 1998, Tester won election to the State Senate. He became politically active because he was “infuriated” by the soaring rates that followed electricity deregulation approved by the GOP-controlled legislature (CQ & Barone Political Almanacs 10 & 14).

Tester rose to State Senate Minority Whip and Minority Leader, and became president of the MT Senate when Democrats gained control of that body in 2005. In 2006, Tester ran for the U.S. Senate against 3-term incumbent Conrad Burns (71). Burns’ corrupt dealings with GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff were politically fatal. Tester defeated Burns 49%-48%, a 3,562 vote margin (Barone 14). Running for a second term in 2012, while Romney was carrying MT with 55% of the vote, Tester defeated MT’s sole House member, GOP Cong. Denny Rehberg, 49%-45% (Barone 14).

In the Senate, Tester remains his authentic self, wearing cowboy boots and maintaining his 1950’s style flat-top haircut. He sticks to his Western populist roots. Coming from a strong “Red” state, he has sometimes split with his party. He supported the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast. However, he voted with Obama on the most important issues of his presidency, the stimulus, health care reform, and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street overhaul (Davis, S., usatoday.com). As of 7/2018, Tester voted with Trump’s positions about 37% of the time. That means that in a state that Trump carried by a 20.2% margin in 2016, Tester still voted with “Team Blue” 63% of the time (fivethirtyeight.com, Bycoffe, nytimes.com, 8/01/17). If Rosendale wins, bet on him voting with Trump in the 95% plus range. MT is not CA or NY. Tester has received high ratings from liberal groups, including Americans for Democratic Action and the League of Conservation Voters, but low scores from the Taxpayers Union and American Conservative Union (See Barone 14). He is pro-choice and backs embryonic stem cell research (Kuglin, missouiian.com, 3/06/17, Reed, huffingtonpost.com, 11/12/12). Tester called the7/2017 GOP attempt to repeal Obamacare “a train wreck that would strip heath care away from millions of Americans (NPR, Simon).” He proposed a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Ct’s. “Citizens United” ruling that allows corporations and unions to donate unlimited sums of money to third party groups (James, npr.org/blogs, 1/30/12). Tester is a gun owner and comes from a state where many hunt and own firearms. Although the NRA gave him high ratings, that group, as I noted, is throwing its support to GOPer Rosendale. Why? Probably because Tester has a “D” after his name. He also had the “nerve” to vote for a proposal to ban gun sales to individuals on the terrorist watch list (nytimes.com, Bloch et al, 12/19/12, Luley, missoulian.com).

Tester, as previously noted, comes from a normally “Red” state that Trump handily carried. GOPers control every MT state office except Tester’s and the governorship. Although his approval rating has gone down 21 points from 1/2017, in 8/2018, Donald still has a 50% positive to 47% negative rating in Big Sky Country (morningconsult.com, axios.com, McCammond, 8/27/18). Tester, remember, has been involved in two close elections. Pundits and GOPers have, therefore, viewed him as vulnerable in his 2018 run. Trump came to MT to campaign for Rosendale after a National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) internal poll showed Rosendale leading Tester by two points (axios.com). This poll is within a 4- point margin of error and only sampled 600 likely voters. The Real Clear Politics average has Tester up by 5.5 points (axios.com,McCammond). In 9/2018, the respected Cook Political Report moved this race from “Likely Democrat” to “Lean Democrat.” However, all these ratings still make for an extremely close race. Expect GOPers and their groups to pour in millions for Rosendale. Democrats have to level the financial playing field for Tester.

GOPers now have a 51-49 Senate edge. To take back the Senate, Dems need to pick up a net 2 seats. However, in order recapture the upper chamber, they can’t afford to lose Tester’s seat or 9 others in states that Trump won in 2016 (axios.com, McCammond). Ultimately, the Tester-Rosendale race will come down, as do most contests, to the “T”-word, “Turnout.” Despite its “Red” Rocky Mountain leanings, the western part of MT has a strong labor union tradition with its miners and a university community in Missoula. The capital, Helena, is also a Democratic stronghold. In 11/2017, it elected as its mayor Dem. Wilmot Collins, a black Liberian refugee, who ran as a progressive (Kos, GoodNewsRoundup, 11/09/17, (CQ & Barone 10 Almanacs). To win, Tester must get “y uu ge” turnout from MT’s western half and pick up voters in that state’s “leave-me-alone” GOP eastern half. For Tester to stop outside -backed reactionary Rosendale, turnout will be everything.