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Two Democratic challengers to U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte are emerging as donation leaders in the latest campaign finance reports.

Billings Attorney John Heenan and Grant Kier, former Five Valleys Land Trust director of Missoula, have both surpassed $400,000 as candidates close the door on 2017 fundraising.

Heenan was at $580,843.36, including personal loans to his campaign totaling $200,000. Heenan had $375,582 in cash on hand. Kier reported raising $440,942, with no loans. The Missoula Democrat had $308,283 cash on hand.

It was the second quarter in a row Heenan and Kier lead a group of five Democratic House candidates who have registered with the Federal Elections Commission. Observers cautioned not to put too much stock in funds raised as an indicator for political success.

“I think we can make too much of the money thing, certainly when you get to the point where you try to reduce it down to who has the most money, that’s too simplistic,” said Rob Saldin, University of Montana political scientist. “You have to raise a certain amount of money to do the basic things to run your campaign, hire staff.”

Gianforte, the Republican incumbent elected in a high-dollar May special election, reported receipts totaling $636,950 for the 2018 race. Gianforte had $348,138 cash on hand. He has loaned his campaign $250,000.

Late Democratic filers reported less than $100,000 each. Billings Democrat Lynda Moss, vice chairwoman of the Northwest Area Foundation, reported $46,400 raised since becoming a candidate in November. Moss previously served in the state Legislature.

Kathleen Williams, associated director of Bozeman’s Western Landowners Alliance, reported $73,034 raised. A former state legislator, Williams announced her candidacy Oct. 26.

Democrat Jared Pettinato, of Whitefish, reported $36,490 in receipts. Pettinato, an attorney, has loaned his campaign $10,000. 

There are examples in the not-too-distant past of fundraising leaders losing a Montana primary for statewide office.

In 2014, Republican then-candidate for U.S. House Matt Rosendale led all GOP candidates with a $1.3 million war chest.

But Rosendale finished third behind winner Ryan Zinke, who had $1.1 million as voting started and Corey Stapleton, who raised $644,176 — half as much as the finance leader.

“Money is a necessity, but just because you have more money than your opponent doesn’t mean you’re going to win,” said Jeremy Johnson, Carroll College political scientist.

Both Saldin and Johnson say how a campaign is executed makes the difference once a candidate has raised enough to cover basic costs.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.