BILLINGS, Mont. – In one of the most expensive Senate races ever, freshman Democrat Jon Tester won re-election over the state’s lone House member, Denny Rehberg, with a broad coalition of credit unions and banks helping to boost the incumbent.

The odd coalition of credit unions, banks and credit card companies was forged during last year’s brutal fight against the Durbin amendment’s cap on debit card fees, during which Tester sponsored an unsuccessful bill to repeal the cap.

More than $50 million is believed to have been spent on the race for the tiny state’s Senate seat, including half of it from outside-the-state interests on both sides.

But more than the tens of millions of dollars flooding campaign coffers of both candidates and the airwaves, what may have pushed Tester over the top in this state with just 1 million residents was a series of voter initiatives coordinated by Montana’s credit unions. “This was a super, super cause, and the right guy won,” said Tracie Kenyon, president of the Montana CU Network, which helped organize fundraisers, neighborhood canvasses, phone banks and direct mailings on Tester’s behalf.

While Tester has been quiet on important credit union issues such as the member business loan bill, his championing of the Durbin amendment repeal – though unsuccessful – has won him the undying support of members of the Electronic Payments Coalition, the traditional nemesis the credit unions and banks.

Tester was supported with contributions from NAFCU, CUNA, CUNA Mutual Group, dozens of credit union executives (Kenyon through a Tester fundraiser at her home), and a direct mailing paid for by CUNA that went to tens of thousands of credit union members throughout the state. Credit unions such as Bear Paw CU, Rocky Mountain CU and Missoula FCU included positive Tester messages in their member newsletters.

Also making major contributions were a long list of banking groups, including the American Bankers Association, Consumer Bankers Association, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Capital One, Fifth Third Bancorp, KeyCorp, Commerce Banc, Compass Bancshares, as well as Visa and MasterCard.

Tester’s narrow win – he scored 49% to Rehberg’s 45% (Libertarian candidate Dan Cox won 6%) – is expected to pay big dividends when the Democrat returns to Washington for a second term. The credit union support was especially important to the Democratic Senator in a state where President Obama lost by 13 points. The race also was important for the Democrats’ efforts to retain control of the Senate, where they will hold 52 seats in the new Congress and probably gain the votes of two independents.

Kenyon was clear on the meaning of the race to her state’s credit unions. “It means we have a good friend who understands and respects the importance of cooperative businesses and who understands and respects the importance of credit unions and small businesses,” Kenyon told Credit Union Journal yesterday.

 

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