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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Professor Sheds Light On Outside Spending In Montana Special Election

Greg Gianforte (L) and Rob Quist (R) are running for Congress in a special election to fill Ryan Zinke's seat.
Greg Gianforte (L) and Rob Quist (R) are running for Congress in a special election to fill Ryan Zinke's seat.

Candidates and outside groups are dumping more than $12 million into Montana’s short special election race for the U.S. House, surpassing the spending in last year’s race by $3 million. That’s according to the latest federal campaign reports filed this week.Lee Banville is a journalism professor at the University of Montana, and the author of a book about media and politics.

Lee Banville is an associate professor of Journalism at The University of Montana.
Credit Courtesy UM School of Journalism
Lee Banville is an associate professor of Journalism at The University of Montana.

“I think it tell us that the race is competitive," Banville says. "That it still might be tilting towards Gianforte, but that the national parties and national groups on both sides see this as a race that could go either way.”

Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist have each raised just over $3 million to fund their campaigns. About 64 percent of contributions to Gianforte’s campaign have come from individual donors, while most of the rest is $1 million of his own money, which he poured in in the last three weeks.

But a small part of contributions to Gianforte’s campaign — about two percent — are from political party groups and PACs, political action committees.  Most of that came from outside Montana.

That’s true for his Democratic opponent Rob Quist, too. Only about one percent of contributions to Quist are from PACS, and, of that money, most is from outside the state.

But 98 percent of Quist’s contributions have come from individual donors, and most of those are $200 or less. Federal law says candidates aren’t required to identify individual donors who who contribute at that relatively small amount.

That makes Shane Scanlon, Gianforte’s Communications Director suspicious.

“It should be concerning to Montanans that you have over $2 million pouring in from the east or west coast from donors we know nothing about," Scanlon says. "And Quist's not going to disclose that information, and he doesn’t want Montanans to know about that.”

But Gianforte has also not disclosed the identities of small donors whose contributions add up to more than $300,000 for his campaign.

This week an activist group accused Gianforte of encouraging donors to circumvent limits on individual contributions by donating to affiliated Political Action Committees. A Gianforte campaign spokesman called that charge “bogus.”

MTPR reached Rob Quist on a cell phone traveling between campaign stops. He says he appreciates the number of small donors to his campaign.

“I’m really gratified about that," says Quist. "That is exactly the campaign that I wanted to run. I came out very earlier saying I would not take any corporate PAC money. So I’m really joyed that we’re being supported by this grassroots organization.”

While the candidates themselves have raised about $3 million each, another $5 million has been spent by out-of-state money from political interest groups. That money has paid for phone calls, mailers and TV ads like this one, from the Washington, DC-based Congressional Leadership Fund.

Of the $5 million spent by outside political groups, about $4 million is from conservative and Republican PACs, attacking Democrat Rob Quist.

“Almost always when outside money is spent, it’s spent to attack a candidate,” says University of Montana Journalism professor Lee Banville. “When you see a lot of money come into a race it means they are really trying to undercut support for what they see as a surging candidate or a potential threat.”

Conservative groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund, the National Rifle Association, and the Republican National Committee, among others, are leading the attack against Rob Quist.

This week Texas Senator Ted Cruz joined the rallying cry for Gianforte in a fundraising email blast, as did Robert O’Neill, the former Navy SEAL who claimed to fire the shots that Killed Osama bin Laden.

On the other side, about $450,000 is coming in from liberal groups attacking Republican Gianforte. Most of that is from a PAC supporting House Democrats. Planned Parenthood also spent $40,000 to oppose Gianforte.

Lee Banville says the money pouring into Montana now could be predictive of the battle ahead next year, when Democratic Senator Jon Tester will defend his seat against an as-yet unchosen Republican challenger.

“If you think that the $12 million in 85 days is a lot, my guess is we’re going to see an enormous swamp of money come in once that race starts to shape up," Banville says. "We are going to see this kind of intensity, but for months, not just a month.”

ActBlue, the organization that helped Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders finance his bid for President last year, mostly with small-dollar donors, has been working hard to raise money for Rob Quist. Sanders is coming to Montana for four campaign events with Quist this weekend in Missoula, Butte, Billings and Bozeman.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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