A Taste of the Future in Montana


I just got back from a long weekend of marathon meetings in Montana – the unlikely home of an outfit I’ve been working informally with since the early 1990s, the Institute on Money in State Politics.

Here at Sunlight we’re focusing on Congress, but out there in Helena, Montana IMSP tracks campaign money at the state level. Their website at www.followthemoney.org is the gateway to all this information. Essentially it’s a state-level counterpart to the DC-based Center for Responsive Politics, which analyzes federal contributions.

IMSP started their research with a core of eight western states (not including California), but over the years they’ve steadily added to that, gathering the records from state elections offices, cleaning the data and categorizing every contribution by industry and interest group. This will be their third election cycle covering all 50 states.

Their website lets you search the entire database, but it’s not very well known nationally, so to get their information out to a wider audience the Montanans are rethinking their approach and experimenting with new hi-tech ways of spreading their data to outside websites and blogs. That’s what the weekend meetings were all about.

They’ll be going full blast between now and the end of the year to gather the contribution data and disperse it as widely as possible. It should be very exciting to watch. Their 14-million-record database covers every state legislature, all the governors and other statewide-elected officials. In recent years they’ve also started tracking judicial races and initiatives.

Their reports – on subjects from private prisons to minority candidates – are first-rate and their data is available nowhere else. I’ve known all this for years [full disclosure: I’m on the board], and so do a growing number of journalists, academics and political insiders. But most people still don’t know this kind of data exists anywhere, let alone at a single website that makes it easy to sift through.

My only caveat: some people may find digging through their database addictive. One question begets another, and the answers are only a couple of clicks away. You can spend a lot of time on followthemoney.org once you know it’s there.

Primary postscript: Eight states are holding primary elections today. Much of the national attention has been focused on California, where there’s a special election to fill the vacancy left when Duke Cunningham resigned his seat after pleading guilty to bribery. Political reporters from everywhere will be reading much into the tea leaves of that matchup between the parties.

While I was in Montana, I got a look at another tea-leaf race to watch – the contest between two Democrats who are lining up to run against Republican Senator Conrad Burns in November. Burns was one of the top recipients of contributions from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the Democrats see a chance to possibly pick up a seat. But the early front-runner, State Auditor John Morrison, stumbled into some ethical problems of his own and he’s since lost the momentum to State Senate President Jon Tester.

Tester is short, pudgy, cuts his hair in a flat top, and runs a ranch when he’s not running the state senate. He’s more liberal than Morrison, but he’s also a hundred times folksier and Montanans appreciate folksiness. If Tester pulls off a come-from-behind win today, Burns will have a bundle on his hands in November. If not, the ethics issue may be something that both candidates in the Montana senate race may want to downplay.

Post-election update: Tester won the Democratic primary in a romp