STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
You heard Brian mention outside groups spending in Virginia. That spending was made easier by the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling back in 2010, which opened the door to more corporate political spending. Loud complaints about that decision came from the state of Montana, where we're going next. It has a history of restricting corporate political spending, and officials worried that outside groups would swamp their tiny media market - which they have, as NPR's Martin Kaste reports.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: To get a handle on just how big the ad war has become in Montana, you have to dig into the local TV station's public files.
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KASTE: Stations are required to let the public inspect their political ad sales records, and that's just what Dave Parker is doing here at KTVM in Bozeman.
DAVE PARKER: There are 21 outside groups that spent money in this race - 21.
KASTE: Parker is a political science prof, researching a book on Montana's Senate race. To track all the ads, he drives for hours between TV stations, where he finds contract files so thick, he photographs the pages to save time.
PARKER: Over the period of two days going to Billings and Great Falls, I took a thousand digital images.
KASTE: He hasn't tallied all his figures yet, but the Wesleyan Media Project says Montana is seeing by far the biggest ad war of any Senate race in the country - 19,000 ads in just three weeks. Why so many? In part because airtime in Montana is a bargain.
PARKER: It's just a lot cheaper to basically purchase media time in the state and saturate the state.
KASTE: And a lot of the spending is unaccountable. The nonprofit groups buying ads don't even have to say where they're getting their money. There are ads attacking both of the Senate candidates, but it's the Democrat, Senator John Tester, who's trying to make this a campaign issue.
SENATOR JOHN TESTER: There is so much secret money coming into this state right now. No accountability whatsoever. Basically just a few people that are trying to buy the government, and it's ridiculous.
KASTE: Tester has an ad of his own, lamenting all the outside spending and implying that the Citizens United ruling primarily benefits his opponent, Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg. Rehberg's campaign manager, Erik Iverson, dismisses this as inside baseball.
ERIK IVERSON: The name ID on Citizens United in the state of Montana, I'm guessing if it were at 20 percent I'd be shocked.
KASTE: He says Montanans may be annoyed by all the ads, but that's not the same as seeing the system as unfair.
IVERSON: I think at the end of the day, Montanans are going to look at this and they say, listen, you know, this is an expensive Senate race and people are going to spend money on both sides of it trying to influence the vote. And that's just the way it is.
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KASTE: And Iverson may have a point about the name ID of Citizens United.
ALICIA TOMAC: Um, no, I don't know about Citizens United so much. Do you, babe? I haven't heard too much about it.
KASTE: At a weekend festival near Bozeman, a lot of people, like Alicia Tomac, draw blanks on the Supreme Court's ruling, even as they express disgust at all the ads it made possible.
TOMAC: We, like, have to fast forward all the commercials now, yeah. Basically because it's just people bashing each other. I don't like to hear that.
KASTE: The ad war has spread to non-federal elections too. Montana used to have its own law barring corporate political spending. The ban was passed by voters 100 years ago. But this year it was also struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock says you can already see the effects on smaller state races.
STEVE BULLOCK: Well, I think we're seeing more and more money. It's $500,000 spent behalf of one of the candidates running for my position, my current position as attorney general, and that was unheard of.
KASTE: Bullock is a Democrat who's now running for governor. And he believes Montana's tradition of small town small-dollar politics is under assault. Just last week, a coalition of conservative business interests convinced a federal judge to strike down another one of Montana's campaign finance laws - one limiting the amount of money that candidates could take directly from individuals on political action committees. Donations used to be capped at $310 for most statewide races. Now, effective immediately, candidates for state office can take as much as they're offered. Martin Kaste, NPR News.
INSKEEP: You're following the election with us on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.