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Watchdog groups to file complaint against Montana candidate alleging coordination with NRA

Watchdog groups to file complaint against Montana candidate alleging coordination with NRA

Campaign finance watchdog groups are planning to file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) asking it to investigate whether Montana GOP Senate nominee Matt Rosendale and the National Rifle Association (NRA) were illegally coordinating.

The Campaign Legal Center and Giffords, the nonprofit political arm of former Rep. Gabby Giffords’s (D-Ariz.) organization, said it is filing the complaint on Friday or Monday. 

The complaint is being filed after the Daily Beast published audio it obtained that suggests Rosendale knew the NRA would be involved in the marquee Senate race, saying it had obtained it from an unspecified July event in Washington, D.C.

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Campaign finance law bars groups that make independent expenditures from coordinating on spending with a candidate. But candidates are allowed to court groups like the NRA for their endorsements.

In the audio recording, an unidentified man is heard asking, “Have outside groups been spending money on your behalf?”

Rosendale, who’s challenging Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterElection Countdown: Florida Senate fight resumes after hurricane | Cruz softens ObamaCare attacks | GOP worries Trump will lose suburban women | Latest Senate polls | Rep. Dave Brat gets Trump's 'total endorsement' | Dem candidates raise record B Protesters spell 'LIAR' on Montana mountain ahead of Trump's arrival The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Health care a top policy message in fall campaigns MORE (D-Mont.), responds by saying he had been told that the NRA would step into the race and would be involved "in August sometime." 

“I fully expect the NRA is going to come in … in August sometime. The Supreme Court confirmations are big. That’s what sent the NRA over the line,” Rosendale says.

But it's unclear which specific involvement or activity from the NRA Rosendale is referring to.

Rosendale adds that the Supreme Court vacancy is a big issue that’s leading to the NRA's interest in the race.

Rosendale later said that Chris Cox, the NRA’s top political strategist for its Institute for Legislative Action, conveyed to him the NRA's interest in getting involved.

“Because in ’12, with [Republican Senate nominee Denny Rehberg] they stayed out, they stayed out of Montana. But Chris Cox told me, he’s like, ‘We’re going to be in this race,’” Rosendale said.

The NRA-ILA ended up launching a $400,000 TV ad buy in early September opposing Tester, taking aim at his record on guns and noting that he backed Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor and voted against confirming Justice Neil Gorsuch.

But the NRA also endorsed Rosendale around that same time.

Rosendale’s campaign is pushing back on what they call a “baseless” story, saying that the Republican state auditor was discussing how Rosendale had sought the NRA’s endorsement, which is legal.

“This is amusing desperation on Jon Tester’s part and it's completely baseless. The only thing this audio proves is that Matt sought the endorsement of the NRA — and we're proud to have it,” a Rosendale spokesman said in a statement.

“Matt and the NRA have never discussed anything beyond the organization’s membership and endorsement process. If Jon Tester is so desperate to save his seat, perhaps he should focus more on fighting for Montana and defending our Second Amendment rights rather than spreading lies about our campaign."

The NRA also categorically denied having discussed any coordination with the Rosendale campaign.

"At no time did NRA-ILA discuss any communications or activities beyond our membership with Matt Rosendale or his campaign. Any assertion otherwise is completely false," Jennifer Baker, director of public affairs at the NRA-ILA, told The Hill in a statement.

However, one of the groups filing the complaint says it suspects Rosendale was referring to coordination between the NRA and the candidate's campaign.

“The language that Rosendale uses in there seems clear to me to be an indication of coordination,” said David Pucino, a lawyer who's involved in filing the FEC complaint on behalf of Giffords's group.

Pucino added that Rosendale “seems to clearly indicate that they will be ‘coming in’ and spending,” which “seems a clear discussion of coordination, not merely endorsing," pointing out how Rosendale had been responding to a question about whether outside groups had been spending money on the candidate's behalf.

But Brad Smith, a former Republican FEC commissioner who was nominated by President Clinton, said he doesn't believe this is coordination. He added that based on the transcript of the audio, it didn’t appear that Rosendale and his campaign were involved in “crafting the message” of the ad.

“There’s nobody following politics for more than 30 seconds that doesn’t know that in Montana, gun rights and the Supreme Court nomination are going to be important issues,” Smith told The Hill. “It doesn’t rise to that level of material involvement in the kind of plans of sharing information and working in concert.”

Meanwhile, Tester’s campaign said in a statement that the Daily Beast story raises “serious concerns” and shows a “troubling pattern” of Rosendale on campaign finance laws.

"This audio raises serious concerns about potential illegal coordination between Matt Rosendale and an outside, dark money group coming into Montana to support him,” said Chris Meagher, a Tester campaign spokesman.

“At a minimum, this is just the latest in a troubling pattern of Matt Rosendale playing fast and loose with campaign finance laws."

Rosendale and Tester are squaring off in a competitive Senate race in a state that President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Guardian slams Trump over comments about assault on reporter Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Watchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US MORE carried by about 20 points in 2016. As Republicans seek to defend their slim 51-49 Senate majority, Montana could play a role in which party controls the upper chamber next session.