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Mike Cooney

Montana Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney announces his campaign for governor in June 2019.

HELENA — Montana Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney asked his fellow Democratic gubernatorial candidates Wednesday to limit outside spending and self-funding in the election by signing a pledge that one opponent's campaign called a stunt that could hinder the party's nominee in the November 2020 general election.

Cooney sent copies of the pledge to the other Democratic candidates before signing it himself at a news conference at the Capitol. He plans to follow the conditions even if none of the others sign it, though he said he doesn't expect that to be an issue.

"Everybody's going to have to agree to it, I just don't know why they wouldn't," he said. "If everybody signs it, that sends a very clear message to outside groups that we don't want your involvement, please stay away."

Cooney's pledge asks candidates to promise to donate to charity half of the value of any independent expenditure made by outside organizations, individuals or corporations that benefit their campaign. Independent expenditures are typically ad buys to influence elections made by groups without any knowledge or coordination by a candidate's campaign.

Candidates who sign the pledge also promise to donate to charity 50 cents for every $1 they give to their own campaigns.

"Let's reject dark money groups, let's reject special interests, super PACs and the anonymous committees that take refuge in the shadows of a broken campaign finance system," Cooney said. "And let's reject self-financing. Having personal wealth shouldn't be the only thing that qualifies you to run for public office."

Cooney took in more than $250,000 during the last fundraising quarter, far more than House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner or ex-legislator Reilly Neill. Whitney Williams, a Missoula businesswoman and the daughter of former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, launched her campaign after the last reporting deadline.

Campaign finance records show no independent expenditures have been made as of last month.

The pledge doesn't apply to direct contributions made by political-action committees to a candidate's campaign, Cooney campaign adviser Ronja Abel said. Deloitte PAC and Health Care Services Corp. PAC donated a combined $1,020 to Cooney's campaign last quarter.

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At least one Democratic candidate rejected the idea of signing the pledge. Williams' campaign manager, Brian Lenzmeier, accused Cooney of playing political games that could harm the Democratic nominee against a Republican candidate such as U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte.

Gianforte, a technology entrepreneur, spent millions of his own money in his first run for governor in 2016, which he lost to incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. Now that Bullock is term-limited, Gianforte is running for the open seat along with Republicans Tim Fox, the state attorney general, and Al Olszewski, a state senator.

"With this media stunt, the Cooney campaign has committed to unilaterally disarming in a general election against multimillionaire Greg Gianforte," Lenzmeier said.

Cooney said the pledge applies to the Democratic primary, and that he hasn't decided whether to disavow outside money or self-financing in the general election.

Schreiner did not directly answer whether he'd sign the pledge, but instead emphasized his legislative voting record against anonymous money influencing elections.

"This race should be about everyday Montanans, which is why I'm traveling the state from Ronan to Sidney discussing the issues that matter to Montana families, and it's why I've pledged to take at least 75% of our donations from right here in Montana," he said.

Neill, who reported having $479 in the bank at the end of the last fundraising period, said she would gladly agree to the pledge. She said she's already practicing the pledge, having donated campaign and personal funds to nonprofit organizations and a scholarship program

"Overall, I applaud any effort to contribute to worthwhile nonprofit organizations and equalize all candidates' chances in the primary," she said. "But with Gianforte and (U.S. Sen. Steve) Daines each raising over a million dollars in the first few months of their campaign, the Democratic party will need to be creative about how to beat the campaign dollars of the Montana GOP in the general election with ideas alone."

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