Staffanson mailer

An oversized postcard sent to voters May 14 by Montanans for Responsible Leadership, criticizing Rep. Scott Staffanson's vote against Senate Bill 289, the Disclose Act, during the 2015 legislative session.

Over the weekend, a pair of lawmakers bemoaned that they were the subject of an oversized postcard criticizing their votes on a campaign finance reform bill during the 2015 legislative session.

“That awkward moment ... Dark Money sends attack ad on my no vote on the supposed anti-dark money bill,” tweeted Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, on Saturday.

Rep. Daniel Zolnikov

State Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings

“Sooooo...(insert eye roll here) The Responsible Republicans...the Lil’ r’s...the Undocumented Democrats...the Neo-Cons...the RINO’s...whatever label strikes your fancy....used dark money to put out a hit piece on me today, with their loosely spun yarn that I support ‘dark money,’” wrote Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, in a longer post on her Facebook page. “I didn’t vote ‘for dark money.’ I voted against a bad bill.”

The lawmakers were criticized for their votes on Senate Bill 289, the Disclose Act, and several other lawmakers including Rep. Scott Staffanson, R-Sidney, and Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, were also targeted.

The Montanans for Responsible Leadership, the committee financed by centrist, pro-business Republicans, are paying for the ads.

“There’s nothing dark about it,” said Sandy Welch, the deputy treasurer for the committee. “You can go onto the (Commissioner of Political Practices) website and see where every dollar spent has come from.”

That’s true. The estimated $20,000 the committee spent on the mailers came from the now defunct Montana BASE (Business Advocates for Sensible Elections).

Campaign finance reports from Montana BASE show that $20,000 coming from centralist Republicans who are organizing a larger effort to regain ground within the Legislature after losing some seats to the Libertarians and constitutionalists in past years.

They’re also allying with construction contractors to criticize the conservative faction’s “no” votes on a major infrastructure appropriation last session.

More details on the committee’s ad buy will be reported May 26, but photos of some of the ads show that not all of it is negative. Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, and Senate District 18 candidate Brett Smelser, former mayor of Sidney, are being praised.

So far, Montanans for Responsible Leadership is the only independent PAC spending money in the run up to Montana’s June 7 primary election. There’s plenty of time for that to change, but in years prior, conservative nonprofit corporations like Western Tradition Partnership would go “RINO hunting” by financing negative ad campaigns in hopes of ousting centrists (“Republicans in name only”) in the primary election.

That activity led directly to the passage of SB 289, which Commissioner of Political Practices Jon Motl compared Monday to “turning a light on in a dark room.” The bill requires more detailed and more frequent reporting by all groups active in electoral politics.

Troy Carter can be reached at 582-2630 or tcarter@dailychronicle.com. He's on Twitter at @cartertroy.

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Troy Carter covers politics and county government for the Chronicle.

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