Shell Game: The Gubernatorial PAC Money Debate

Mar 24, 2016

This year’s gubernatorial race is expected to draw record-breaking amounts of money for the two leading candidates. Recently, the opposing campaigns are disputing where that money is coming from.

"I actually don’t understand this bickering that's going on between those two campaigns."

That’s Denise Roth Barber. She’s the managing director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, based in Helena.

In January, Republican front-runner Greg Gianforte challenged incumbent Democrat Steve Bullock to not accept money from Political Action Committees, or PACs.

Gianforte said public officials shouldn’t be beholden to special interests. The Associated Press reported Bullock dismissing Gianforte’s no-PAC challenge as, quote, "disingenuous and silly."

Denise Roth Barber says both campaigns are following campaign finance laws for raising money, and the debate over which individual candidate is or is not receiving PAC money directly isn’t really important.

“We already documented that, historically, candidates don’t raise a lot of money from PACs. So, I’m not sure what the issue is there. I didn’t understand the validity of that challenge, honestly.” 

In the past four gubernatorial election years in Montana, about 1.5 percent of the nearly $16 million candidates raised themselves came from PACs.  That’s about $250,000, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics website.

But that doesn’t mean PAC money isn’t a huge part of gubernatorial races. Candidates are often heavily supported by their political party. And lots of the party’s money comes from PACs.

In the past four gubernatorial campaign years, for instance, about 40 percent of all the money raised by Montana’s Democratic and Republican Parties came from PACs — about $7 million out of a total of $17 million.

"So even if a candidate doesn’t take any PAC money, there is going to be a lot of PAC money involved."

The finger pointing over this issue surfaced again late last week.

Democrats called hypocrisy on Gianforte for attending a fundraising dinner for the Montana Republicans in Washington D.C. PACs were invited to the dinner with a suggested donation of $1,000.

Here’s Democratic Party spokesperson Jason Pitt.

"It’s clear that Gianforte’s PAC pledge was nothing more than a political gimmick. Right, telling Montanans that he won’t accept PAC money, and then going behind closed doors to raise PAC money in Washington D.C. and hoping that no one finds out is absolutely the height of hypocrisy."

And here’s Aaron Flint with the Gianforte campaign.

"You know, Steve Bullock just needs to sign the pledge, it is pretty straightforward. If he has a problem with PAC money, then he should sign the no-PAC pledge. Greg Gianforte is controlling what he himself can control. And he himself is not going to take PAC money into his campaign."

As the campaigns hope to damage the other’s political momentum over fundraising strategies, Denise Roth Barber from the campaign spending watchdog group says Gianforte and Bullock aren’t doing anything wrong.

"'Cause they’re both using legitimate, viable mechanisms for raising money, and they should just allow each other to do that … I have to wonder how much Montanans actually really care about this particular spat between the two campaigns. I think what the public really wants to hear is why each candidate is the best person for that job. And if there is gonna be money spent, there needs to be full transparency," Roth Barber says.

PACs are required to report donors to the Federal Election Commission. State PACs, those spending on the gubernatorial race, are required to report to the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices. But Roth Barber says if someone doesn’t want their support of a candidate known, they can easily and legally hide the money’s original source.

And while there are limits for how much PACs can give directly to a candidate, indirectly, Roth Barber says, there are ways to get around that.

"There is absolutely no limit. If you have deep pockets there is no limit in how much you can spend supporting your candidate. Because there are so many vehicles you can use to spend that money.”

That includes so-called dark money groups, which are allowed to raise money from anonymous sources. Those groups are legally prohibited from coordinating with candidates’ campaigns.

Before Montana’s 2015 Disclose Act there was a lot of money spent indirectly for or against candidates, and that spending wasn’t reported. The Disclose Act requires more reporting, but some non-profit groups can still remain anonymous, so Roth Barber says it still falls short of requiring total transparency.

"If a spender says, ‘oh, I got my money from this group,’ and that group doesn’t have to disclose its donors, then the trail runs cold pretty quickly."

It can all become a shell game she says, like a political game of Russian dolls filled with money.