Wednesday, August 27, 2014

New blog on Battle for the Big Sky

I just wrote up a new blog about my experience writing about the 2012 Montana Senate race.

You can read it here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Ryan Zinke Takes A Bunch of Out of State Cash. Should we care?

One of the lines Democrats have been using to bash Ryan Zinke is suggesting that by taking a large percentage of his individual contributions from out-of-state donors he won't represent Montana's interests in the House of Representatives. In short, out of state money equals viewpoints which are automatically detrimental to the interests of Montana and Montanans.

I've never quite understood this rationale because it assumes that there is a singular interest that is Montanan and that Montanans agree on what that looks like. In my forthcoming book, Battle for the Big Sky (due out in October 2014), I argue that what is distinctive about Montanans is the connection they feel to the land and to place. That said, Montanans can and do disagree with how the land should be utilized--a dichotomy I roughly describe as "extractionists" versus "protectionists". Even that perhaps is too blunt, because even those who believe there should be additional energy exploration on public lands certainly would agree with the notion that some land should be protected from such exploration and use. Certainly, campaign contributions from outside Montana reflect these different viewpoints, no?

I mean, I get the rhetoric and why it's powerful: Montana has a complicated relationship with the "other"--meaning the federal government and large multinational corporations seeking to exploit Montana in pursuit of their own interests. But merely taking campaign contributions from folks who live in other states and suggesting that it means you won't or can't put the interests of Montana first seems somewhat silly to me. Let's face it: It's only a special interest if it's not your interest. If it's YOUR interest that's being advanced, then it's just and worthy, right? My main point is I am justifiably leery of the rhetorical and political exercise suggesting that money raised from outside the state is somehow impure.

Putting that aside, there is the empirical question to consider. How unusual is it for Ryan Zinke to accept nearly three-quarters of his individual contributions from individual contributors living outside Montana? For candidates running for Montana's lone House seat, it turns out quite unusual. If Zinke were running for the United States Senate, alternatively, he'd fit right in.

Using data compiled by the fine folks at the Center for Responsive Politics, I put together the table below listing the percentage of out-of-state contributions received by every Republican and Democratic Senate and House candidate running from 2000 through 2014. These data are based on all individual contributions of $200 or more. Click on the table below.

You'll find that Zinke's contribution patterns are clearly an outlier here. The only other House candidate that comes close is Nancy Keenan, the Democratic House nominee in 2000 who raised 64 percent of her individual contributions from non-Montanans. More typical is the roughly third of contributions raised out of state by Congressman Rehberg during his six House campaigns. I should also note that it is pretty normal for House candidates to raise the bulk of their money from within their district or state--clear exceptions are House candidates with national profiles either because of their party leadership positions, ambitions for higher office, or those who have consciously sought to become spokespersons and advocates for particular ideological causes within their parties (Representatives Alan Grayson and Michele Bachmann come to mind here).

The bulk of campaign contributions for U.S. Senate candidates, however, tends to come from outside of Montana's borders. Again, this pattern is not unusual--individual senators have far more power than any individual congressman, they have more constitutional responsibilities of a national nature, and as such, they tend to draw far more donor interest nationally. It is also the case that poorer states tend to rely more heavily on outside funding to pay for competitive and expensive Senate races. In 2012, both Senator Tester and Congressman Rehberg drew about 80 percent of their contributions from individuals living outside the state.

But Senator Max Baucus was the champ when it came to contributions from beyond Montana. In 2008, facing token opposition, the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee received 90 percent of his individual contributions from non-Montanans. Clearly, lots of donors were interested in bending the ear of the man responsible for the arcane ins and outs of the federal tax code and trade policy.

So yes, Zinke's contribution patterns are unusual both in the recent history of Montana House races and the patterns we expect to see generally in house races in other states. But does it really matter? I'm not convinced that it does. And, I'm even less convinced that Democrats are really genuinely interested in protecting Montana from the evils of outside influence on Montana's elections when their own Senate candidates have long benefited from money from non-Montanans to fund their own election efforts.

I think more problematic from the perspective of candidate Zinke is the possibility he has trouble connecting with Montana donors--which tells us a different story altogether about his ability to convince voters to support his candidacy come Election Day. Zinke's success with Montana donors exists in stark contrast to Steve Daines' success in raising money at home--both in his 2012 House race and in his current Senate campaign.

Zinke's reliance on out of state donors might indicate he has trouble closing the deal with Montanans when he meets them--but that tells us much more about his qualities as a candidate than it does about him supporting interests that are not Montana's. That, I think, is the key lesson to be drawn from the contribution patterns observed above.