The contest for the seat held by Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, is one of the potentially close 2012 races that could ultimately decide whether Democrats maintain control of Congress' upper chamber.
As such, the battle is attracting attention from outside groups hoping their financial assistance will make a difference for both the first-term Democrat and his Republican challenger, Rep. Denny Rehberg, the state's sole House member and a former lieutenant governor.
Tester ran as a populist in 2006, beating the then-Senate incumbent, the controversial Republican Conrad Burns, by a mere 3,562 votes out of more than 400,000 cast. That was a wave-election year that favored Democrats, suggesting the depth of the challenge Tester faces in gaining re-election in a state that votes Republican in national elections.
Tester has proposed a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. In that decision, the high court held that corporations and unions enjoyed free-speech rights that allows them to donate unlimited amounts of money to third party political groups.
On All Things Considered Monday, Tester explained to co-host Melissa Block his opposition to Citizens United and the concerns it raises from his perspective for American democracy.
TESTER: "Well, I think corporations are a whole lot different than people. I don't know corporations that can be put in prison. I do know people that can be put in prison. I mean, it's a totally different entity. I don't think the forefathers envisioned when this country was setup that we would have corporations that had the same rights or more rights than people.
"That's what's happened here. You know, as this whole thing gets fleshed out. And, by the way, in the end, I don't think it helps Democrats; I don't think it helps Republicans. I don't think it helps anybody. In fact, I think it goes against people, it goes against our ability to run this country in a way that makes sense for people.
"And that's really what's sad about it. As a policy maker, as a public servant I come to Washington, DC and I make difficult decisions and I make difficult decisions everyday. And sometimes those decisions upset people.
"Well, if you have corporations out there that have hugely deep pockets, and I'm concerned about re-election — which isn't the top thing on my mind, the top thing on my mind is to make good public policy — well they're going to come into a state like Montana and put $1 million down the year before an election and probably put $15 (million) to $20 million in the year of the election which is what we figure they're probably going to do this election cycle.
"And whether it beats me or not, I don't know, I have great faith in the people of Montana that they can't be bought. But if it does, what a travesty. I mean, you make the right decision, it helps people, it helps families, it helps our next generation and the generation after and you have a big corporation, maybe not even from this country that can blow in with $10 (million) or $15 million which is nothing to them and huge amounts to regular folks and buy an election.
"It's ridiculous and it's not what our forefathers sought and it really goes against our democracy. It goes against what this country is built upon."
Tester criticized the lack of transparency created by Citizens United which doesn't force donors to reveal their true identities, a failure that makes all kinds of mischief possible, he said.
He cited a negative ad recently run against him that he was so false, he said, his complaints led a cable channel to stop showing it though broadcasters continued to. He said:
"That's the kind of stuff you see when you don't have transparency and accountability in government."
Melissa asked the senator about Montana's history in reforming campaign money. A century ago, through a voter initiative Montana passed restrictions on campaign cash to rein influence buying of one of the state's most powerful corporations at the time, the Anaconda Copper Co.
TESTER: "This whole thing about putting corporations into the process, giving them rights as people, Montanans figured out a long, long time ago. I think it's unfortunate that the Citizens United overturned that 100 years of precedence. But we did have the Montana Supreme Court (recently) upholding that voters' initiative that was passed back in 1912. And I think that was the first challenge to the Citizens United decision since it was made (by the U.S. Supreme Court) two years ago."
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
There is a movement on to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling with a constitutional amendment. One vocal proponent of that movement is Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana. He's finishing up his first term and facing a tight race for re-election. Tester says Citizens United allows corporations to secretly buy American political elections. And he takes issue with one fundamental part of the Court's decision - the idea of corporate personhood. That corporations, like people, have a right to political speech.
SENATOR JON TESTER: Well, I think corporations are a whole lot different than people. I mean, I don't know a corporation would be put in prison. I do know people would be put in prison. And that's really what's sad about it. As a policymaker, as a public servant, I come to Washington, D.C. and I make difficult decisions and I make difficult decisions every day. And sometimes those decisions upset people.
Well, if you've got corporations out there that have got hugely deep pockets - and I'm concerned about re-election, which isn't the top thing on my mind. The top thing on my mind is to make good policy. Well, they're going to come in, in a state like Montana, throw $1 million down the year before an election and probably put 15 to $20 million in during the election, which is what we figure they're going to do this cycle.
And whether it beats me or not, I don't know. I have great faith in the people of Montana, they can't be bought. But if it is, what a travesty. That's ridiculous. And it's not with the forefathers sought. And it just really goes against what this country is built upon.
BLOCK: Conceivably, though, some that corporate money could benefit you or certainly labor union money on behalf of political ads, which has traditionally favored Democratic candidates, that could also benefit you.
TESTER: Well, in the end, I don't think it benefits anybody. I mean, I think in the end, this decision hurts Democrats and hurts Republicans. Regardless if I have my third party people or what happens, I think in the end when you have no transparency, when there's no accountability, it's not good for government.
BLOCK: Senator Tester, I want to ask you about some of the constitutional amendments the Democrats have introduced into Congress that would reverse the Citizens United decision. You signed on as a co-sponsor. To say that this is an uphill struggle would be an understatement. I mean, the pass to get a constitutional amendment ratified means you have to pass it with a supermajority in both Houses of Congress. It then has to be ratified by three quarters of the states.
Is this really, do you think, a symbolic move more than anything that has a practical chance of getting passed?
TESTER: Well, I think you have to fight for what you believe in. And I don't see this as symbolic. I think it can happen. Whether - it's certainly not going to happen before this election is over with in 2012. But I think this is a direct attack on our election system. And I think people will see it as that, and they'll move forward in a way that, you know, keeps his country a great country and keeps our elections free.
BLOCK: I gather that the race, your re-election race, for your seat in the Senate is looking really pretty close. How much of an effect do you think corporate spending is having on that campaign?
TESTER: Well, as I've said, the authority put $1 million in all on attack ads on me. And I think that's just the beginning. Our challenge is, is to make sure we get the facts. If we get the facts out, we win the election. If fiction trumps fact - and that's exactly what these third-party folks are trying to do, is make fiction from fact - then it becomes a real problem.
BLOCK: You know, Senator Tester, that your opponent's campaign says that you're hypocritical for talking about restricting campaign finance. They call you the number one recipient of lobbyist campaign cash out of any Washington politician this election cycle. How do you respond to that?
TESTER: Well, first of all, I've put up incredible standards in my office for lobbyists; went far, far, far above the Senate standards, number one. Number two, the fact that you know that people give money to my campaign shows that there's transparency there. But the fact is you know about it.
The problem with these third party folks is that you don't know who they are, where they come from. And yet, they're going to put as much money into this campaign potentially as either one of the candidates put together.
BLOCK: Conceivably, there would be a third-party group, a superPAC that would say, you know, we're going to back Senator Jon Tester. If that's the case, what do you do? Do you say, no, I don't want that? Do you...
TESTER: First of all, I wouldn't know who to go to, number one. And number two...
BLOCK: Because you're not supposed to go to them, right?
TESTER: Number two, if there was listening to this program, I would just a deal with the facts. Deal with facts. Don't make stuff up.
BLOCK: Senator Tester, thank you very much.
TESTER: Thank you.
BLOCK: That Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, talking about why he's backing a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.