Conservative MT Lawmakers Attacked in Dark Money Leaflet

Organizations Montana Rep. Art Wittich (R-Bozeman) (photo courtesy of KMMS Radio).

Conservative lawmakers in the Montana Legislature reacted swiftly and harshly last week to the distribution of a leaflet which accused some representatives of throwing “away their “conservative” principles to advance liberal ideology.”

The leaflets were mailed to state lawmakers by an unknown dark-money group innocuously named The Montana Association of Conservatives (MAC). The mailers did not contain a return address, and MAC is not registered with either the Secretary of State’s office or the Commissioner of Political Practices, and it is not at all apparent where the money to pay for the mailing originated.

Particularly harsh criticism was reserved for certain members of the Republican leadership who have gained reputations as stalwart conservatives including House Appropriations Chairman, Rep. Nancy Ballance (Hamilton), Rules Committee Chairman, Rep. Jeff Essmann (Billings), and Human Services Committee Chair, Rep. Art Wittich (Bozeman), whom the publication all identified as “D-rated legislators” and “The fake conservatives.”

By heavily cherry picking certain votes on issues such as budgeting, education, natural resource development, healthcare, government regulation, life, property rights, second amendment, taxes, and tort reform, the scorecard sought to establish a “conservative” percentage for each lawmaker examined.

Of the Representatives attacked, both Wittich and Ballance were excoriated, with the publication branding them as the “King” and “Queen” of liberal Republicans. The mailer labeled Wittich’s record on conservative issues as “appalling” claiming that he “sought to spend $100,000—to advertise Obamacare insurance and over $160 million dollars over four years to provide insurance coverage to 800 people.”

Wittich was also attacked on the issue of “net-metering,” which credits alternative energy users for the electricity they add to the grid.

Of Rep. Nancy Ballance, the scorecard primarily attacked her record on budget issues, claiming that under Ballance’s stewardship of a constitutionally required mandate that had to be approved by a Democratic governor, “the state budget increased a whopping 7%.” On the issue of Medicaid the leaflet claimed that Ballance joined Wittich in “promoting Medicaid expansion in Montana” and promoted a Medicaid expansion bill that “sought to spend $120 million over four years to cover 10,000 people.”

No mention was made of Ballance’s stalwart opposition to the Medicaid expansion plans put forward by Democrats and liberal Republicans that sought to use federal dollars to expand Medicaid to far more people, mostly able-bodied adults.

In response to the attacks, Media Trackers contacted both Ballance and Wittich who both strongly condemned the dark money attacks, with Wittich claiming that the mailers were part of a dirty tricks campaign by liberal or “responsible” Republicans — who have frequently sided with Democrats on major issues in recent legislative sessions — bent on tarnishing conservatives.

A combative Wittich specifically named fellow Republicans Llew Jones, Bruce Tutvedt, Ed Buttrey, and Sandy Welch, all members of the so-called “Responsible Republicans” faction of the Montana legislature, as the likely culpable parties. Wittich called “Responsible Republicans” “morally challenged” and “infantile” claiming that the group complained during the legislative session about the influence of dark money but were now “resorting to the same tactics.”

“They (Responsible Republicans) just care about preserving power” stated Wittich.

“Responsible Republican” State Senators Llew Jones and Bruce Tutvedt categorically denied being behind the mailers when contacted by Media Trackers, both asserting that any time their coalition — often represented by the PAC Montana Business Advocates for Sensible Elections (MTBASE) — ever issued a piece of literature it was clearly labeled as originating from them.

“Those that scream the loudest are always the ones shooting in the dark” stated Jones, pointing out the fact that Wittich had cast a vote against Republican Senator Duane Ankney’s anti-dark money bill (The Montana Disclose Act) which was passed last legislative session and was subsequently signed into law by Gov. Steve Bullock.

Tutvedt, who was just named “Most Valuable Policymaker” by the Montana Chamber of Commerce, decried Wittich’s accusations as baseless and anti-Republican, claiming that Wittich and his cohorts were being driven more by ideology than out of a desire to lead by example in the legislature.

“We need leadership that wants to come together to govern, not people that simply want to be the party of no” stated Tutvedt.

Ballance, for her part took a more measured tone in responding to the attacks, focusing on the shadowy nature of the accusations rather than pointing fingers at possible origins. Ballance pointed out that the bill which made up the score had been cherry-picked so to skew the record and make her look more liberal than she actually is.

Primarily, Rep. Ballance took issue with the mailer’s dark-money aspect, stating that “there was no return address, they (Montana Association of Conservatives) are not registered with the Secretary of State, they are not registered with the Commissioner of Political Practices, so you don’t know who is funding this, and you cannot tell by the mailer how their scoring methodology was created.”

“This whole dark money thing is a fiasco and we know that” stated Ballance. “But, if this is legitimate [conservatives], we would certainly like to know who it is.”

In the end Ballance echoed Tutvedt somewhat in stressing unity among Republicans; telling Media Trackers that should their party not win the governorship in the next election cycle it would take a united caucus to push through a conservative agenda and keep the party from “becoming the party of no” and assuming a de-facto opposition stance even as the majority.

Ron Catlett contributed to this report.

Phil Rolen is an Independent contributor to Media Trackers Montana. He is a current doctoral candidate in the field of Strategic Security and holds an MA in Intelligence Studies from American Military University. He served during the 110th and the 111th U.S. Congress in Montana as a U.S. House of Representative Wounded Warrior Fellow and is an active-duty Veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Joint Taskforce Katrina.

Media Trackers Montana is a conservative non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting accountability in the media and government. Read more at Follow Media Trackers on Twitter @mediatrackersmt.

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