MISSOULA — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester condemned dark money donations and Russian election interference during a panel discussion at the University of Montana Friday.

The panel discussion was focused on outside influences in U.S. elections, a problem Tester said Montanans are all too familiar with. It also included former CIA analyst Nada Bakos and University of Montana law professor Anthony Johnstone.

“We’ve had a long history of people trying to buy our elections,” Tester said.

Tester’s Senate seat is one of 33 expected to be challenged in the 2018 midterm elections, races already attracting millions of dollars in TV spots produced by groups like the liberal Majority Forward and conservative America First Priorities.

Both groups file as nonprofits and cannot run ads specifically supporting a candidate, although they can cast a light — either positive or negative — on candidate's positions. Campaigns by law cannot coordinate with such groups.

A candidate doesn’t need to be involved or even exist for these types of ads to make a difference in an election. No challenger has yet come forward against Tester in the 2018 election, but ads condemning his positions are already running.

“And that is part of roughly $1 million that outside groups have spent against Jon already this cycle,” said Montana Democratic Party spokesman Chris Meagher.

Another concern for Tester as he heads into the 2018 is whether the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee will have concluded its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

“We need to get to the bottom of the Russian stuff and get it behind us,” Tester said. “The administration would be much more effective if they just opened it up and said here it is, we’ve got nothing to hide.”

Tester said he has spoken to committee chairman Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, about the investigation ending by Christmas, but is unsure is the committee is on track to meet that deadline. But as the investigation develops, Tester said he knows that may not be possible.

But without the facts, combating future influence by Russia will be like “shooting a moving target,” Tester said.

Russia already has about 150 intelligence operatives working in the United States, said Bakos, the former CIA analyst.

Russia wants to have influence in the world again, Bakos said. One of the main talking points linked to Russia propaganda in 2016 was that “mainstream media is not portraying American interests,” Bakos said.

Still, Tester believes there is room to work with Russia, despite the possibility the country may be planning more election interference in 2018.

Tester said negotiating with Russia is like negotiating with any country the United States might disagree with.

"If I’ve got somebody that I can work with on an issue, then we work with them on that issue, and then you may be arguing against them on the floor on another issue. That’s the way things work," he said.

Bakos doesn't see it the same way. 

"How does that square with our fight against ISIS?" Bakos said. 

A representative from U.S. Sen. Steve Daines' office was also scheduled to appear on the panel to read a statement from Daines, but had to cancel because of a scheduling conflict. But, Daines' office told the Missoulian Friday he believes in diplomacy and every effort should be made to secure peace in order to work with Russia, while still being leery of the country. 

"I'm skeptical of Russia's intentions and we need to remain vigilant and maintain a watchful eye," Daines said. 

The panel also discussed voter fraud, with Johnstone saying that of the billion votes cast in 2016, there were about 31 instances of fraud. The threat to American democracy is not going to come from voter fraud, Johnstone said.

“There are problems with our election administrations and we need to sort it out, but something to look out for are efforts to make voting harder for Americans on the basis of the very, very low possibility of real fraud,” Johnstone said.

About 200 people attended the panel organized with the help of the Montana World Affairs Council, Montanans for National Security and the Davidson Honors College. 

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