The Copper Kings once lorded over Montana, picking the state's governors and senators. The grip of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company was so tight that it took a statewide initiative, the 1912 Corrupt Practices Act, to stop big corporations from buying a candidate's way into office.
But exactly a century later, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, corporations are coming back. A Friday finance filing with the state Commissioner of Political Practices revealed that in just the past two weeks, companies contributing to the Republican State Leadership Committee lobbed $108,217 into the race for the state's attorney general -- the same office charged with defending the Corrupt Practices Act.
"I'm sure Shakespeare would love to write a play about this," said Derek Cressman, Common Cause's regional director of state operations for western states. "It's a classic example of once the floodgates are open of what can happen."
The leadership committee's independent expenditure on behalf of Tim Fox, a Republican candidate for attorney general, comes at a pivotal time for campaign finance in Montana. The current attorney general, Democrat Steve Bullock, is arguing a long shot case in the Supreme Court to revive the Corrupt Practices Act, which has been mostly suspended following the Citizens United ruling.
The court's ruling in Citizens United paved the way for corporations to spend directly on candidates as long as they did not coordinate their efforts.
With Bullock running for governor, the attorney general race is open. The leadership committee, an Alexandria, Va.-based organization charged with getting Republicans elected in races nationwide at the local level, sees an opportunity.
The Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration's health-care law now under fire in a Supreme Court case, is widely interpreted as an affront to personal liberties within the state. Fox previously ran for attorney general in 2008, garnering 47 percent of the vote, and it seems anti-Obama sentiment could send him over the top this year.
"We support candidates that will stand up to the Obama administration's continued overreach such as the one seen in Obamacare," said Adam Temple, spokesman for the leadership committee. "Tim Fox has prioritized the issue and has the experience needed to lead on it from day one."
In the post-Citizens United world, however, the leadership committee is not alone. In contrast with its 2008 campaign disclosures, which were studded with small-money donors, this year its state-level PAC is drawing money from some of the country's most well-connected firms.
The Washington, D.C., law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; Altria, formerly known as Philip Morris; and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America have all chipped in, among others.
Fox's opponent in the GOP primary, State Sen. Jim Shockley, said the spending represents an unprecedented intrusion by the committee into a local race where the state party has not endorsed a candidate.
"Nobody has ever heard of this in a Republican primary," said Shockley. "These guys just dropped in out of nowhere."
Fox's campaign said that until it heard of the filing from a reporter Monday morning, it didn't know the committee or the affiliated corporations were getting involved.
Neither, according to one of the corporations, did they. Tobacco manufacturer Altria disavows any knowledge despite the committee's campaign disclosure, which lists $8,426 "in-kinded," "non-earmarked contribution" from Altria for radio ads, and another $7,325 for direct mail.
"We had nothing to do with those ads. We didn't pay for them," said spokesman Ken Garcia. "We gave money at the national level to the RSLC. How they decided to use it from there -- that's up to them."
Garcia and the pharmaceutical group said the committee likely used Altria's committee membership fees to fund the Montana race without the company's knowledge. Such fees fuel the national campaign spending by the committee and its Democratic counterparts, like the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. On the gubernatorial level, both the Republican and Democratic Governors Associations are already hitting the airwaves.
In the past, similar organizations affiliated with both major parties have been accused of facilitating the trade-off between money and influence, offering state candidates their first taste of access to national donors. But a spokesman for Fox said the attorney general candidate would not be swayed by the independent expenditure on his behalf.
"Tim is focused on the issues that are important to Montanans, and he has no control on whatever outside, independent political groups are doing in this campaign," said Tyler Matthews, a senior adviser to Fox. The candidate has previously said that he would have been willing to fight in court to defend the Corrupt Practices Act.
"There's a strong strain of western populism, and even western conservatism, that doesn't cotton to big corporations coming in and running this show even more than they like big government," said Cressman.
Shockley believes that Fox has no control over the independent expenditures. Still, as an old-time Montanan whose family has been in the state since the 1860s, a retired Marine, and a guy who has driven himself 351 miles for a campaign lunch and another 241 miles for dinner, he's incensed that businesses are again meddling in the state's politics.
The Supreme Court, he said, "overruled about 90, 100 years of precedent, which normally we conservatives don't like, in order to rule that corporations are people, which would surprise George Washington."
Shockley's own campaign filing includes money raised in the sale of gun show raffle tickets -- in other words, it could not be more different than the committee's.
"I just have no idea where these people came from, or why they got here," he said.
Below, the biggest super PAC donors making an impact on the 2012 elections:
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