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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Gianforte Dominates Early Montana Campaign Fundraising

Current candidates for Montana's 2020 gubernatorial race. Republicans Tim Fox, Greg Gianforte, Al Olszewski. Democrats Mike Cooney, Reilly Neill, Casey Schreiner. Not pictured: Libertarian candidate Ron Vandevender.
Current candidates for Montana's 2020 gubernatorial race. Republicans Tim Fox, Greg Gianforte, Al Olszewski. Democrats Mike Cooney, Reilly Neill, Casey Schreiner. Not pictured: Libertarian candidate Ron Vandevender.

Candidates for statewide office in Montana’s 2020 election raised more than $1.4 million since the start of the year, most of that coming over the last three months. Candidates were required to file campaign finance reports by Friday.

Most of the early money coming in is taking sides in the contested Republican primary for governor.

U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte raised the most in the three-way race during the April through June reporting period, with more than $500,000 raised.

Gianforte also spent the most — over $140,000. That bought him several five-figure TV and radio ad campaigns, like one in which the narrator says, "Montana needs a conservative leader who shares our values. That’s why Greg Gianforte is running for governor.

The ad shows scenes of Gianforte walking through work zones with blue collar workers, wearing a hunter orange vest while carrying a rifle through snow, and talking with people at a diner — recycled footage from ads Gianforte ran while campaigning for his current seat in the U.S. House.

Before first winning that seat in a special election in 2017, Gianforte failed in a previous gubernatorial bid against Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in 2016.

Gianforte’s campaign raised the half-a-million dollars in just 30 days, as he officially declared for governor in June. It puts him well ahead of his Republican opponents in early money for the primary race.

Despite being the most recent candidate to announce, Gianforte has brought in around 56 percent of all of the money raised in the race between himself, current Attorney General Tim Fox, and orthopedic surgeon and State Sen. Albert Olszewski.

Fox has raised around $312,000 this year.

Olszewski has raised $142,000, with a large chunk of his own money. He’s loaned his campaign $100,000. Gianforte also loaned his campaign $50,000.

These kind early campaign loans aren’t uncommon, according to researcher JT Stepleton with the National Institute on Money in Politics.

“A lot of them will provide these loans up front, or sometimes just direct payments up front to try to kickstart the campaign," Stepleton said.

He said he would hesitate to extrapolate much meaning out this kind of early self funding in a campaign.

But he says it’ll be something to watch over the next year, because if a candidate keeps using their own money to bankroll a campaign, "Most of them don’t win. And they’ve had some political scientists look into this. It shows they don’t have much of a base to begin with. And also I've heard some suggest that maybe this shows they don’t have a lot of experience in state politics, even if you go to the federal level, too.”

Republicans haven’t held the Montana governor’s seat since 2004. That frustrates many GOP leaders because Democratic governors have vetoed conservative policies passed by the Republican majorities in the state Legislature.

This year those policies included bills targeting access to abortion, opposing sanctuary cities in Montana, and allowing lawmakers to carry concealed guns in the state capitol.

Over the last three months, Republicans in the governor's primary race raised more than 70 percent of all the money backing candidates in 2020 statewide races in Montana.

The more than $1 million already banking GOP candidates for governor since the start of the year compares to the roughly $33,000 raised the three candidates on the Democratic side.

House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner holds nearly all of that money. He announced his candidacy in June with a video in which he says, "I’m running because like so many of you, my family played by the rules, worked hard and were grateful to be born here in Montana. But like so many other families, that hasn’t protected us from hardships.”

Former state Democraitic lawmaker Rielly Neill, also running for governor, has raised just over $300.

And current Lieutenant Gov. Mike Cooney just announced his entrance into the race last week and has not yet filed any campaign finance reports.

Other statewide contested primaries also pale in comparison to the Republican race for governor.

In the bid for attorney general, Democratic State Rep. Kimberly Dudik has brought in more than $100,000, including an $85,000 loan to her campaign.

She’ll face off against Gov. Steve Bullock’s chief legal council in the Democratic party primary, Raph Grabill. He has not yet filed any campaign finance reports.

The Republican Primary race for attorney general is also contested, with over a combined $93,000 in that race. Current Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion has the early cash-on-hand lead above former Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen.

The primary races for the 2020 election are in June of next year.

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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