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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

In Montana Politics, Personal Wealth Goes A Long Way, To A Point

Candidate Win Percentage vs. Candidate Self-Financing Percentage In Montana Elections Since the 1990s.
Data and analysis provided by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Data includes all primary and general election candidates on organization's dataset:[{1%7Cgro=y
Candidate Win Percentage vs. Candidate Self-Financing Percentage In Montana Elections Since the 1990s.

The next campaign finance reporting deadline for candidates in Montana’s primary races for the U.S. House and Senate seats is Sunday, April 15.

The reports will reveal details about how the candidates are funding their campaigns, but we already know that, with a few exceptions, the front-runners are wealthier than most Montanans.

“There are a number of ways a candidate’s personal wealth helps them get elected,” says Edwin Bender, the Executive Director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

“First, just being able to take the time to even consider running for office, usually is a filtering process. A lot of people can’t take time away from a job to run for office. So if you’re wealthy, you actually become eligible to run,” he says.

Having free time to run a campaign and being wealthy don’t always go hand in hand. Teachers, for example, could use the summer break to campaign, or farmers winters; but they might not have the kind of seed money necessary to give initial momentum to their candidacy.

Wealthy people also tend to have more name recognition, and contacts, that could attract donors to boost their campaign startup efforts.

Bender and others who study campaign finance say candidates with big financial assets have an advantage in the wealth primary.

“The wealth primary, which is if someone steps in early and they’re a millionaire, then anybody who wants to run against them knows that they have to raise a whole lot of money, probably over than the average raised by people in primary races. So just the wealth factor alone that a candidate can bring to bear is a filtering process in itself, it limits competition, and it's really a corrosive factor in the whole money-in-politics world,” he said.

Five of the 10 candidates running in Montana’s federal seat primaries, have publicly disclosed that they have assets worth in excess of a million dollars.

And, early in the primary season, both a Republican and a Democrat dropped out of the race citing fundraising issues and their inability to self-fund.

In January, Democrat Tom Woods of Bozeman told Yellowstone Public Radio that’s why he left the race.

“It’s about the numbers. There's a couple of folks in the race here who have raised about 10 to 15 times as much money as I have. And we’re heading into a time in the race where you really have to start spending money on media, and I just don’t have it,” Woods said.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will face Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte, who is reportedly one of the wealthiest members of congress.

Looking at Gianforte’s potential Democratic challengers, one candidate stands out as having the greatest ability to put their own money into a campaign.

Democratic House Candidate John Heenan.
Credit Olga Kreimer
Democratic House Candidate John Heenan.

Financial disclosure forms show Billings Attorney John Heenan has assets worth between $3 million and $11 million. Much of that is tied up in the law firm and restaurant Heenan owns. But his financial good fortune has allowed him to loan $200,000 to his own campaign. That’s the most self-funding of any Democrat in the race, and amounts to over 30 percent of all Heenan’s fundraising. That’s as of the first campaign finance reporting period, which concluded at the end of January.

His campaign has produced a two-and-a-half-minute video ad in which Heenan says, “I have spent my entire professional career as a consumer advocate, fighting for people that have no political or financial influence, no voice.”

In contrast, Kathleen Williams, a former state legislator from Bozeman, has the fewest reported assets, somewhere between a $118,000 and $422,000. Williams so far hasn’t donated any money to her own campaign.

Grant Kier, another Democratic challenger has raised the most money so far from sources other than himself, and he’s personally contributed a little under one percent to his total campaign bankroll.

But John Heenan’s personal contributions mean that he’s got the biggest campaign war chest among Democratic candidates, reported so far. Democratic candidate John Meyer, of Bozeman, doesn't appear to have filed either asset disclosure forms or fundraising reports.

In a primary election, personal wealth helps get a campaign moving, but if a candidate is going to be successful in the June 5 primary and in the November general election, they need to fund their campaign with money outside of their own pocket, says Edwin Bender from the National Institute on Money In State Politics.

“The people who have the most money, or who are incumbents, win 90 percent of the time,” he says.

Using 2015 data, the Center for Responsive Politics reported that the median worth of members of the U.S. House is close to $900,000, and in the U.S. Senate, the median net worth is more than $3.1 million.

Three of the four Republicans seeking to their party’s nomination to challenge Democratic Senator Jon Tester have disclosed seven figure assets. Candidate Albert Olszewski, a Kalispell physician, doesn't appear to have filed an asset disclosure yet.

Former Judge Russell Fagg from Billings reports assets worth between $12 million and nearly $42 million.

Rep. Matt Rosendale
Credit Eric Whitney
Montana Public Radio
Matthew Rosendale, Montana's state auditor.

Matt Rosendale, Montana’s State Auditor from Glendive, reports assets worth between $7 million and $32 million. Both Rosendale and Fagg report that much of their potential wealth is tied up in real estate. And while Fagg has contributed $25,000 to his campaign, Rosendale hasn’t donated any of his own money.

Edwin Bender says a candidate's personal wealth can help a campaign get off the ground, but it also can work against a candidate's public image.

“People who have wealth are often perceived, whether justly or not, as being arrogant, snobs, whatever, and a lot of people resent that. That is a very real trait that has to be confronted. And that’s why wealthy candidates who do run, and want to win, have consultants who say 'let's soften that image, but more importantly, you need to get on the road and you need shake hands and you need to be viewed as an everyday person,'” he says.

When a candidate visits the local county fair, kisses a baby, talks about sitting down with regular folks having a cup of coffee, that builds a relationship, or at least the perception of relationship. And Bender says can be more valuable than money.

Montana election history shows that the more of a candidate's campaign war chest that comes from personal contributions the less likely they are to win.

“If you gave your campaign over half or your money your chances of winning were 16 percent. And those are figures mirrored across the country,” Bender says.

In Montana elections since the 1990s, candidates’ chances of winning decreased as the percentage of campaign funds they contributed themselves increased.

The candidate who has contributed the most to his own campaign in this year’s primary races, from any party, is Republican Troy Downing.

Downing has given his campaign $650,000, that’s 75 percent of all of his campaign fundraising as of the end of the last reporting period. His campaign is the most well-funded among all candidates. But unless Downing raises more outside money, recent history says he’s unlikely to win.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics’ Edwin Bender says during a campaign startup, almost all candidates have to self-fund. But if a candidate continues dropping big money over the course of a campaign to fund their own political message, he says that’s a good indication that their grassroots networking isn’t going very well.

“In some ways it gives you a physiological profile of the candidate themselves. One who values his ability to write a check, and thinks that that's going to get him a win, that’s the way to counter an effort where someone is  actually doing the hard work of engaging with the community. And maybe that lends you then to think about how good of representative they’re going to be if their solution is money as opposed to talking to people,” Bender says.

While a winning campaign tends to be the one that raised the most money, the richest candidate isn’t necessarily guaranteed a win. Because the money that bankrolls a candidate tells a story about who values that campaign’s political message and future — the candidate themselves or potential voters.

Data and analysis provided by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Data includes all primary and general election candidates on organization's dataset:[{1%7Cgro=y

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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