Issue Ad Watch

Published — October 25, 2000

Montana an unlikely target for out-of-state campaign cash


Montana might not seem like the logical setting for a full-scale brawl over a U.S. Senate seat, but with the U.S. Senate majority in the balance, every contest in the states matters. The voters of Montana have thus been inundated by ads from outside groups spending millions to push their issue or candidate.

Sierra Club is attacking Republican Sen. Conrad Burns for mining-related votes.

Two-term Republican Sen. Conrad Burns and his Democratic opponent, Brian Schweitzer, a rancher trying his hand at politics for the first time, have both been targeted or supported by such powerful interests as the pharmaceutical industry, trial lawyers and big business.

Burns is considered one of the most vulnerable Republicans this election, a condition that attracts more money to each side. The candidates and their parties have already spent a combined $2.5 million on ads, and pledge to spend another $1.1 million.

Here is a look at the groups active in Montana in this election cycle and how much they are spending:

Citizens for Better Medicare is by far the biggest presence in the state, spending $1.5 million in the last few months, by some estimates. The group, heavily funded by the pharmaceutical industry, has run ads since March criticizing plans to reform Medicare and targeting Schweitzer in one run of television ads. Schweitzer has taken on the drug-manufacturing industry and garnered national publicity by ferrying busloads of senior citizens across the border to Canada and Mexico to purchase drugs there because they are cheaper.

This, Schweitzer insists, spurred the Citizens for Better Medicare’s massive action in his state. In addition to Internet banner ads, radio spots, direct mailing and a new TV ad shown in Montana in October, in March Citizens for Better Medicare financed phone banks. The attorney general shut down the calls after a week’s run because a state law prohibits the use of automated telephone calling. All told, the group is expected to spend $30 million across the country this election cycle, although Dan Zielinski, spokesman for the group, insists that the group’s issue advocacy has nothing to do with the election or a particular candidate. “The elections themselves are of no interest. We time our efforts for when Congress can act, and not with the election,” Zielinski said. The group funds this issue advocacy through its 527 fund.

When an asbestos bill, co-sponsored by Burns, inched closer to a vote on Capitol Hill last spring, an ad war broke out in Washington, D.C., and Montana. Plugged by more than 20 lobbying firms representing asbestos manufacturers, roofing companies and insurance agencies, the bill would cap attorney’s fees in the massive asbestos litigation backlog. The legislation proposed that the 200,000 pending asbestos cases be settled through a federal administrative agency without a courtroom and without lawyers. Attorneys waded into the debate by running ads via several groups.

Montanans for Common Sense Mining Laws, funded primarily by trial lawyers, ran three ads in Montana earlier this year attacking the asbestos legislation. The controversy prompted Burns to take his name off the bill. The ads are filmed in a cemetery and call attention to a recent rash of asbestos-related disease in Libby, a small mining town.. The ads cost about $200,000.

Friends of the Earth Action also spent $200,000 on three television ads, two in Montana, one in Washington, D.C., promoting the same message and using the same media consulting firm as Montanans for Common Sense Mining Laws. Friends is a Helena-based group and is also supported in part by the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.

On the other side, the Coalition for Asbestos Resolution, supported by the well-heeled asbestos and roofing industries, answered with ads also shot in a cemetery. These, appearing in Washington, D.C., as well as Montana, blamed trial lawyers for clogging the courts and for taking money from asbestos victims. The ads cost interested businesses half a million dollars. Over the life of the bill, the roofing and asbestos industries spent upward of $10 million on issue advocacy to push asbestos legislation to curb court awards, and on campaign donations to their congressional allies. The Coalition for Asbestos Resolution hired heavyweight Washington media consultants and lobbyists to push their case on Capitol Hill.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also ran newspaper ads in the state supporting the legislation – it plans to spend $500,000 by Election Day. The trial lawyers’ ad campaign proved effective and the bill died in April, but the potential losses the business industry faces mean this is likely not the end of the issue. Since 1986, 10,000 people have died from asbestosis.

The AFL-CIO is also involved in running advertising as well as soliciting “grass roots” action against the Burns asbestos legislation. The labor federation spent $800,000 nationally in a May ad campaign to urge a vote against permanently upgrading the U.S.-China trade status. The AFL-CIO would not specify how much was spent on a series of half-page newspaper ads in Montana.

Sierra Club is sponsoring an $8 million national campaign targeting vulnerable Republicans. The campaign attacks Burns for his mining-related votes in the Senate that, the Sierra Club says, allowed mining companies to dump cyanide and other toxic waste on public lands. The club will not release dollar figures for its campaigns, but a Burns spokeswoman estimates it spent about $500,000. That includes a door-to-door grass-roots campaign, mailings and two separate television ad buys in the Billings market, and two newspaper ads in the state that asked voters to call Burns.

Business Industry Political Action Committee is a coalition of the business community that donates small amounts of money, but, more valuably, support for candidates in tight races. The group is involved in 40 competitive House races and up to a dozen Senate contests. The PAC is looking to spend $4 million this year, but has donated only just over $2,000 in Montana.

The Business Roundtable is a coalition of top business executives from companies such as General Electric, U.S. Steel and General Motors and has run ads supporting Burns. The group will not disclose the total it spent, but the Schweitzer camp estimates it has put out about $100,000 on print and radio ads, and mailings across the state.

AT&T ran up to $250,000 in television ads earlier this year with Burns, on camera, encouraging Montanans to fill out their census forms. While these ads aren’t political in tone, they provide support for Burns’ campaign for the Senate.

The American Medical Association, the lobbying arm of doctors and health providers, targeted Burns and seven other vulnerable senators who voted for a patient’s bill of rights that would allow patients the ability to sue HMOs. Health-related enterprises account for one-seventh of the economy, and this group has leveled big guns against the targeted eight. Running television and newspaper ads that ran in May, the group spent an estimated $250,000.

The American Association of Health Plans ran ads in Montana and nationwide, purchasing time on CNN and other networks. The group, which represents insurance companies, spent $200,000 this past spring in Montana. The ad blitz focused on medical errors and profits of trial lawyers. The ads end with this comment: “Get the patients the care they need instead of getting lawyers the clients they want. Let’s have a real health care debate. Call Congress.”

League of Conservation Voters, another environmental group with a dedicated 527 fund, named Burns as one of its “dirty dozen.” The group labels as its “dirty dozen” the lawmakers it believes to have the worst environmental records. This election cycle, the group plans to spend $3 million to defeat the targeted 12. The group has pledged to spend $250,000 in the state to influence the race.

Read more in Money and Democracy

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