By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
HELENA — Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester cannot win re-election on his own.
So, with $500,000 in television ads buys, a whole bunch of liberals and some of Tester’s closest allies hope Libertarian Dan Cox plays John Stockton to Tester’s Karl Malone.
You know, Cox’s Scottie Pippen to Tester’s Michael Jordan.
Or, more politically relevant, Cox’s Ralph Nader to Tester’s George W. Bush, circa 2000.
Montana Hunters and Anglers Action!, a liberal group set up last year solely to aid Tester’s re-election bid, wants to push the first-term incumbent over the finish line in his tight race with Republican challenger Denny Rehberg.
But instead of advocating directly for Tester, the group purchased half-a-million dollars in television airtime this week pushing voters toward Cox, who could play spoiler in this contest.
The MHAA ad paints Rehberg as Big Brother’s chief enabler, telling potential voters that the Republican challenger, Montana’s congressman since 2001, pushed legislation that would allow the federal government unfettered control of thousands of acres of northern Montana land.
Rehberg, for his part, says the bill, officially House Resolution 1505, sought only to straighten out federal authority on public lands in border areas.
Lest any politicos think the move represents an endearing endorsement of Cox’s policies, it’s not. MHAA, mind you, is full of some of Tester’s closest associates. Land Tawney, president of the front group, served as an adviser to Tester’s office on sportsmen’s issues. The Democratic senator included praise from Tawney in at least one news release.
MHAA’s treasurer, Barrett Kaiser, is one of Montana’s top Democratic political operatives. He works for Hilltop Public Solutions, a left-leaning consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., but operates MHAA out of his Billings office. Kaiser, who worker for Tester’s campaign in 2006, also stands behind Citizens for Strength and Security Fund, another left-wing front group created simply to prop up the junior senator from Montana.
MHAA doesn’t have to immediately disclose its finances, so there’s no telling who, if anyone in particular, funded the ad. Earlier this summer, the League of Conservation Voters, which in its own right is pouring millions of dollars into the race, transferred more than $400,000 to MHAA earlier this year.
MHAA’s strategy is crafty, if also necessary. In 2006, when Tester took on Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, Libertarian Stan Jones took 10,000 votes and ultimately swept Burns out of office. Tester won by just more than 3,000 votes. Pundits soundly believe Jones took the majority of his votes from Burns.
“The rule of thumb in Montana is that libertarians take votes disproportionately from Republicans,” Montana State University political scientist Jerry W. Calvert told the Washington Post after Burns’ ouster. He added that there was “no question” Jones extracted votes from Burns.
Cox told Montana Watchdog earlier this year that he really doesn’t care who wins if he doesn’t. He also said, if he had to pick among Rehberg, Tester and something else, he’d write in another person or simply not vote.
Contact Dustin Hurst at Dustin@Watchdog.org, @DustinHurst via Twitter.