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Tester and Rehberg turn to social media

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The ads are everywhere. They appear in the margins of Facebook pages. They pop up uninvited along the bottoms of YouTube videos. They feature Rehberg or Bullock or Baucus and plug different messages: Vote for. Vote against. Sign up. Join the fight.

With the 2012 election season getting hotter, Montana politicians are staking out territory in the one place desk jockeys can't get away from. Sen. Jon Tester recently launched an aggressive social media campaign against his Republican challenger, Rep. Denny Rehberg. (Rehberg himself dropped $550 late last year on Facebook advertising.) Third-party groups, too, increasingly are taking their messages online; the Montana Wildlife Federation is now running an ad on Facebook criticizing Rehberg for his stance on the Roadless Release Act.

The web buys are on the rise.

"It's a cost-effective way to get a message out," says Rehberg spokesman Erik Iverson. "What's difficult to tell is, are you reaching new people or are you reaching political junkies?"

Social media sites recognized a coming trend last year. Twitter announced in September it would be selling political advertising distinguished by small purple checkmarks and a "promoted by" disclosure. A survey conducted during this January's Iowa Straw Poll showed that 46 percent of political advertisers would invest in Twitter ads; 92 percent said they'd invest in Facebook ads.

Until recently, most of the advertising in Montana's contested Senate race has played out on television; estimates put the amount spent by third party PACs on pro-Rehberg ads in the past year at more than $1 million. Now Tester is on the offensive, countering with YouTube banner ads that criticize Rehberg for his reliance on super PAC assistance.

"The ads are a response to the TV ads we're seeing plastered on TV by pro-Rehberg super PACs," says Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy. "The internet strategy we went with simply points out the fact that Congressman Rehberg has been very good for these secretive organizations, and so it makes sense they're returning the favor."

Iverson says advertising on social media is new for Rehberg. "He's never had to do it before."

The latest spate of ads is hardly exclusive to the Tester-Rehberg bout, however. Gubernatorial candidate Steve Bullock has highlighted his position as "the biggest threat to Citizens United" via Facebook buys, hoping to sway users well in advance of the polls. And Max Baucus—still two years away from the end of his current term—has appeared in a Facebook ad lately urging Republicans to "stop their attacks on Planned Parenthood."

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