Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester talks with supporters at a campaign rally at the Billings Education Association headquarters in Billings, Mont., Friday, Oct. 26, 2018. Conservative groups linked to wealthy donors are saturating Montana airwaves with ads attacking Tester as they try to capitalize on President Donald Trump's feud with the lawmaker. . (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

Groups pour cash into Montana Senate race, smashing record

October 26, 2018 - 8:06 pm

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Spending on Montana's U.S. Senate race has reached $60 million and shattered a state record as Democrats try to hold on to the seat and conservative groups funded by wealthy donors target incumbent Jon Tester following President Donald Trump's feud with the lawmaker.

Montana's airwaves are saturated with political ads, and the latest injection of money comes from a group backed by Las Vegas gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson. The Senate Leadership Fund spent about $1.5 million on anti-Tester ads over the last week and plans to double that amount in coming days, according to campaign filings and a spokesman for the group.

Its spending began the day Trump visited Montana on Oct. 18 to promote Republican challenger Matt Rosendale and bashed Tester for derailing his nominee for Veterans Affairs secretary, Ronny Jackson.

Rosendale, the state auditor, trails far behind in direct campaign contributions — $5 million versus almost $20 million for Tester — and entered the race lacking the Democrat's wide name recognition.

That leaves Rosendale heavily reliant on surrogates and groups that have shelled out a combined $19 million as of Friday to topple the two-term incumbent and protect Republican control of the Senate, according to an Associated Press tally based on the campaign filings.

Groups backing Tester have pumped an additional $16 million into the race. Combined with contributions to the candidates, the total amount poured into the contest has reached $60 million.

Even when accounting for inflation, the total easily shatters the prior Montana election record of $47 million during Tester's 2012 re-election campaign against former Rep. Denny Rehberg.

Most of the money has come from so-called super PACs: political committees that can raise unlimited money but are barred from directly coordinating with candidates.

Montana is among the least populous states with just over 700,000 registered voters, meaning about $85 per potential voter has gone into the Senate race so far.

With less than two weeks remaining in the race and absentee ballots already coming in, the heavy spending reinforces the perception that Tester is again vulnerable after two previous narrow victories in a state that's been putting more Republicans in office over the past decade.

"On every single signature agenda item of the president, (Tester) voted against him," Senate Leadership Fund spokesman Chris Pack said Friday. "Voting against two Supreme Court nominees, then the stuff with Ronny Jackson — he made it very personal with the president."

Adelson and his wife, Miriam, have donated $50 million of the $121 million the group has raised this election cycle, according to campaign filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Tester has avoided taking on Trump directly and instead talks up veterans' legislation he sponsored that was signed into law by the president.

"I think Matt Rosendale wants to run against Chuck Schumer. But he isn't, he's running against me," Tester said in an interview. "For me, it's about who can represent Montana, who understands the rural nature of this state."

Trump targeted Tester in April after the Democrat released allegations against Jackson of drunken behavior, overprescribing prescription drugs and fostering a hostile work environment. Jackson has denied the accusations, which remain under investigation by Pentagon officials.

After the clash between the president and the Democrat, groups backed by wealthy donors began to spend more heavily to support Rosendale. They include Restoration PAC and Club for Growth, which are backed by Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein, and the Senate Reform Fund, funded by Texas oil executive Tim Dunn.

In addition to Trump's three visits to the Montana to campaign against Tester, the president has dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to the state twice. His son, Donald Trump Jr., on Friday kicked off an eight-stop tour of the state with Rosendale and Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte.

Tester also has received a huge financial boost from deep-pocketed political groups, including those representing unions, conservationists, hospitals and banks. They have promoted Tester as a political moderate and attacked Rosendale as a real estate developer from Maryland who won't protect Montana's public lands.

Rosendale said in statement Friday that the election was "slipping away" from Tester despite all the money going behind him.

"Tester has stood against President Trump and it's going to cost him his re-election in November," Rosendale said.

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Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MatthewBrownAP .