HELENA — Republican Greg Gianforte loaned himself $1 million to finance his bid for Montana's only seat in the U.S. House, as his Democratic opponent raked in huge sums of cash from small, individual donors ahead of a nationally watched May 25 special election to fill the seat vacated by now-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
New filings made with the Federal Election Commission over the weekend show that Gianforte, who made millions from the sale of his software business, has raised more than $3.4 million since launching his bid for Congress.
Meanwhile, Democrat Rob Quist, a musician and cowboy poet making his first bid for public office, has collected nearly $3.3 million through May 5, with most of it — $3.2 million — coming from individual donors.
The brisk fundraising activity for the special election — which has a campaign period of just 85 days — has outpaced that of previous congressional races. In 2016, about $9 million in contributions was raised during the primary and general elections. In 2014, it was $7 million.
Large amounts of money — at least $5.1 million thus far — is also pouring into the race from outside the campaigns, paying for mostly negative television advertising.
In a teleconference this month with financial backers, Gianforte lamented Quist's surge in fundraising.
"We're seeing about $70,000 a day pouring into the state from liberals from San Francisco, New York and Hollywood," Gianforte said in a recording from the teleconference obtained by The Associated Press.
"We've had over 5,000 individual people support the campaign financially so far. The challenge is my opponent has over 30,000 contributors. That's this national Democratic organization," he said, in reference to ActBlue, and online portal that helps progressives donate to left-leaning candidates.
Quist's campaign said 56,000 individual donors have given an average of $23 per contribution. The FEC does not require donors who give less than $200 to be identified.
"Greg Gianforte's attempt to buy another election after losing last time shows he still doesn't get Montana. He will get the message on May 25th that Montanans can't be bought and will never be for sale."
Democrats have attempted to brand Gianforte as a "New Jersey millionaire" despite being a resident of Montana for more than two decades, and they were waiting to see when the Republican would again dip into his personal wealth. During his unsuccessful bid for governor last year, Gianforte spent about $6 million of his own money to help finance his campaign.
"Greg made an investment in his campaign. .... He's not going to be bought by special interests," said Gianforte spokesman Shane Scanlon, noting that Quist, citing FEC reports, paid himself $7,000 from his campaign funds.
Scanlon sought to shift the focus on the source of Quist's fundraising. "Over $2 million, and we don't know where it came from," he said.
Both Quist and Gianforte have sworn off money from political action committees linked to industry groups, and, in finance reports, it appears both have kept their word. But Democrats pounced on Gianforte when he seemed to suggest during the teleconference that there were ways around his pledge.
"We do not accept any industry PAC money — although if someone wanted to support through a PAC, our Victory Fund allows that money to go to all the get-out-the-vote efforts," he said. He said it would be a "self-inflicted wound" if he were to take any industry PAC money because he had "made a big deal about" it during last year's governor's race when he challenged the Democratic incumbent, Gov. Steve Bullock, to refuse money from PACs.
A spokesman asserted that Gianforte was speaking about contributions to the Montana Republican Party and his victory efforts.
"I wouldn't call it disingenuous, but those kinds of pledges are not as relevant as they used to be," said Denise Roth Barber, the managing director of the Helena-based National Institute on Money in State Politics. That's because outside groups can now spend limitless amounts for money for uncoordinated campaign activities, she said.
At the end of the May 5 reporting period, FEC filings showed that Gianforte campaign had $826,000 left in the bank, while Quist had $669,000.