In a race that saw more than $700,000 in outside money spent to influence voters, Justice Mike Wheat fended off a challenge from former Solicitor General Lawrence VanDyke.
“I think it’s a testament to the voters in Montana recognizing that their votes can’t be bought,” Wheat said Tuesday night. “In my race, voters looked at the fact that I’ve been in Montana, I’ve been practicing law here and I have experience.”
Supreme Court elections in Montana are non-partisan, yet this year’s candidates both accused each other of partisan leanings throughout the contentious race. Wheat has accused VanDyke of being a conservative activist with few real ties to Montana, and VanDkye has countered with claims that Wheat is a partisan Democrat.
While the groups cannot legally endorse the candidates, they can purchase advertising time and run TV ads about the candidates.
The Republican State Leadership Committee spent hundreds of thousands on ads and mailers for VanDyke, while Mike Wheat appeared in ads paid for by Montanans for Liberty and Justice, a group primarily funded by Montana trial lawyers.
According to recent estimates, outside groups spent nearly $1 million on ads during the race, compared to just $165,000 raised by the candidates themselves.
About $400,000 was raised to either tout VanDyke or denounce Wheat.
It was a race that almost didn’t happen. Last April, a judge took VanDyke off the ballot because he hadn’t belonged to the Montana Bar Association for the requisite five years. But the Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in favor of VanDyke.
The large amount of outside spending could be the new norm for judicial races in Montana.
By ANDREW BIXLER and LAURA SCHEER
UM School of Journalism