Jon Tester Won a Prize for Fighting Dark Money. He’s Been Relying on It for Years.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
March 27, 2024

The left-wing group End Citizens United earlier this month honored Senator Jon Tester as a "trailblazer" against dark money. But dark money is one of the reasons the Montana Democrat is in office.

Since 2006, dark money groups have poured at least $7.5 million into Tester’s campaigns, records show. That hasn’t stopped Tester from making dark money his pet cause and a key part of his populist image, going so far as to propose a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and "kick unlimited dark money out of our elections."

Nor did it stop End Citizens United—itself a dark money group—from awarding Tester its annual "Ethics and Transparency" award on March 14. The group said Tester "has exemplified the efforts to be transparent with who he is working with and what he is working on."

Months before receiving this award, Tester was revealed to be the beneficiary of massive dark money dealings. Last Best Place PAC, a dark money group with close ties to Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), spent nearly $6 million to boost Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale, largely seen as Tester’s weakest Republican challenger.

Last Best Place PAC was subject to a Federal Elections Commission complaint for its failure to file an independent expenditure report, in violation of the agency’s rules. Rosendale dropped out of the race after Trump endorsed his opponent, businessman Tim Sheehy.

This was not the first time dark money groups worked to elevate weaker opponents for Tester. During the 2018 election cycle, one of the largest dark money groups in the country, Patriot Majority USA, spent more than $4.2 million on Tester’s opponent. Patriot Majority USA spent more than $925,000 against Tester’s Republican rival in 2012, as did the League of Conservation Voters Inc., to the tune of nearly $1,000,000.

Tester is gearing up for November’s toughest reelection fight, in a state that swung for former president Donald Trump by more than 15 points in 2020. Although he votes with President Joe Biden 91 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight, Tester regularly shrugs off his party in campaign ads.

His chances of victory will heavily rely on the use of the dark money that he routinely decries, including donations from corporate PACS. According to federal disclosure forms, Tester accepted $15,000 from Boeing’s PAC over the last three years. In 2023, Tester accepted $10,000 from Exxon Mobile’s PAC, as well as $6,000 from FedEx’s PAC and nearly $10,000 from Northrop Grumman’s. Wells Fargo’s PAC gave Tester $5,000 in 2023 as well.

Tester is one of the few Senate Democrats endorsed by End Citizens United for pledging not to accept donations from corporate PACs.

Neither Tester nor End Citizens United responded to a request for comment.