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We've been spending a lot of time this year following the money in Montana's Senate race (see this week's feature), and one contribution in particular recently caught our attention. It came from the Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural water district in the country, based in Sacramento, Calif. For the most part, Westlands' contributions are modest and kept in-state. With one exception: Montana's Republican Senate hopeful Denny Rehberg.

Rehberg's Senate campaign recorded two $2,500 donations from Westlands general manager Thomas Birmingham in March 2011, marking the largest total contribution the water district has made to any candidate this cycle and the only one it's made to a candidate outside of California. What interest could a California water district possibly have in our Senate race?

Turns out this isn't the first time Westlands has thrown its financial weight behind Montana's lone congressman. A look back on disclosure reports from past races shows $1,000 contributions to Rehberg in 2009, 2008 and 2006. More puzzling is a list of donations to former Sen. Conrad Burns between 2003 and 2006 totaling $4,200. Other than Rehberg and Burns, Westlands has never contributed to any federal candidates outside of California.

Westlands was primed to be the key beneficiary of the San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act, a bill that passed the House on a largely Republican vote in February. Critics considered the bill an end-run around endangered species protections along the San Joaquin River and an unprecedented water-rights grab by Washington politicians benefitting water contractors like Westlands.

Rehberg voted in favor of the bill, which was halted in the Senate this spring. But he offered no testimony on the proposal and carried no amendments, making us doubt that connection as the source of Westlands' support.

Westlands has spent more than $800,000 lobbying Congress on a variety of issues over the past five years. Up until 2011, one of the lobbying firms it consistently turned to was Gage, LLC. Turns out, Burns has worked as a senior advisor at Gage, since 2007 and Rehberg's son, A.J. Rehberg, is the firm's president.

In other words, maybe those Montana contributions aren't such an aberration after all.

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