What cows can teach us about political spending in Montana
If you drive from one end of Montana to the other, you'll likely see more cows than people.
Now imagine collecting $19.07 for every cow in the state. That would add up to more than $47.5 million -- roughly the amount spent on Montana's 2012 Senate race. The total smashed previous spending records, working out to $96.92 per 2012 Montana voter. Believe it or not, some experts think our 2014 election could be just as expensive.
"We might see the onslaught of TV ads yet again," Montana State University political expert David Parker said.
That is not welcome news for some voters.
"I think everybody realizes that there is too much money in big campaigns," local Rob Work said.
"I'm not quite sure where it all went," said another local.
In 2012 it paid for campaign staff, travel and millions of dollars in ads. We wanted to know where all that money could come from in 2014.
If popular former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer runs, he could prove a fundraising powerhouse. In fact, an online Schweitzer draft fund launched just minutes after Senator Max Baucus announced he's retiring. The fund's already raised more than $30,000. The money is Schweitzer's if he runs, and many speculate he likely will. But so far Schweitzer himself has been coy.
"I live at Georgetown Lake," the former governor told NBC Montana last month. "People can yip all they want, but the only yipping I hear is coyotes at night."
On the Republican side, former Congressman Denny Rehberg would likely attract national money as well. He raised $9.6 million in 2012. Current Congressman Steve Daines is also considering a run.
"I'll be spending time traveling around the state listening to what the people of Montana say on that. Ultimately I work for them. They're my boss."
Parker says Daines could be formidable as a Senate candidate. "I think because of his connections in the business world, he also would have a good fundraising base to tap into."
For a better idea of how spending in Montana's 2014 Senate race might unfold, Parker suggests looking at last year's North Dakota race -- one without an incumbent, after Democratic Senator Kent Conrad retired.
"Republicans need to get the seat to get the majority; Democrats need to retain it. That in and of itself is going to draw financial attention," Parker said.
That means money from national super PACs, $17 million in North Dakota last year.
Among the top 10 donors to the 2012 North Dakota campaigns, one finds big spenders from out of state -- law firms in South Caorlina, New York, New Jersey and California; political activists; unions and big business. The list is not unlike that of last year's Montana donors.
When the 2012 election ended many voters breathed a sigh of relief. But next time you take a drive through the state of Montana, think about that $19 per cow and what it means in campaign funds. Then remember that next year the dollars-per-cow could be just as high.