HELENA — Outside groups haven’t spent much money so far in the Montana governor’s race compared to the U.S. Senate campaign, but both the Democratic and Republican governors associations expect to ramp up their efforts considerably in the coming weeks.
So far, each association has been active only to a limited degree in its efforts to influence the race between Democrat Steve Bullock and Republican Rick Hill.
The RGA has given $200,000 to the Montana Republican Party, which ran ads critical of Bullock this spring. It formed the RGA Montana PAC, but it was later disbanded.
Meanwhile, the DGA has donated $96,000 to the Montana Democratic Party.
It also formed a new political action committee, the Democratic Governors Association — Montana, which raised $607,000, all coming from international and national unions. The DGA-Montana donated $500,000 of its treasury to another new group, Montana Jobs, Education and Technology PAC, which formed to make independent expenditures in support of Bullock and against Hill. JET PAC ran ads defending Bullock after the state Republican Party ran the ads critical of him. (See related story.)
With only 11 gubernatorial races nationally in 2012 — 12 if the unsuccessful recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is counted — officials at the DGA and RGA made it clear they are closely monitoring the Montana race and intend to become much more involved soon.
Bullock, the state’s attorney general since 2009, is trying to attain the seat held the past seven-plus years by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, also a Democrat. Term limits prevent Schweitzer from running again.
Hill, who served in Congress from 1997-2001, is trying to regain the governor’s office for Republicans for the first time since Judy Martz was elected governor in 2000.
“This race is obviously one of DGA’s top priorities this cycle,” said Kate Hansen, DGA’s spokeswoman. “We know it’s going to be very competitive. Steve Bullock is an excellent candidate and has done great work as attorney general and will continue working to help small businesses, create jobs, improve education and provide homeowner tax rebates and eliminate taxes for small businesses — while Rick Hill would gut public education.”
“We are completely committed to this race,” Hansen said. “It’s a big priority for us. We are looking to keeping the seat Democratic.”
RGA spokesman Mike Schrimpf’s saw it differently: “The RGA is very excited about the race and considers Montana a top-tier pickup opportunity because we believe Rick Hill has the right experience to win and be a tremendous governor. Rick’s run a business, turned around the Montana State Fund when it was in a financial crisis and is unafraid to fight for Montana jobs when the federal government overreaches.”
“Steve Bullock’s done just the opposite,” Schrimpf added. “He refused to fight Obamacare and has stood in the way of the Otter Creek development, hurting job creation.”
Both groups have ample money in this campaign year, although there is no agreement as to how much. They raise money as 527 committees under the Internal Revenue Service code. Each report filed with the IRS shows how much the DGA or RGA raised and spent in the quarter, but unlike other campaign finance reporting, they don’t say how much was left in the bank at the end of the quarter.
The RGA says it has raised $29 million this year for its 527 committee through June 30 and amassed a record $73.2 million for the 2011-2012 election cycle so far. By comparison, the RGA says the DGA has collected $16 million so far this year and $35.5 million for the cycle for its 527 committee.
The DGA, however, says it has raised a record $21 million for its 527 committee, plus other entities for the first half of 2012. These include a DGA Super PAC and its 501(c)(4) group, which aren’t included in the RGA totals.
Money may not be the most important thing these associations have to offer, said David Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University.
“Party organizations like the DGA and the RGA, similar to their congressional counterparts, are important less in the amount of resources they might bring to bear in a particular contest and more in the signal they sent to the other contributors and interest groups,” he said.
That in turn suggests to other “political elites” that it’s an important race to the parties, and thus “an opportunity to use their resources to make a difference in a competitive race,” Parker said.
The chief difficulty faced by Bullock and Hill, he said, is the limit on how much someone can contribute to them under Montana law. An individual can give a maximum of $1,260 to a candidate for governor — $630 for the primary if the person has a primary opponent and $630 for the general.
Parker also said spending in the governor’s race will be greatly eclipsed by what’s spent in the U.S. Senate race by Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg and independent groups.
Because of that, “Hill and Bullock will find it harder to control the message themselves because it will be harder for them to buy scarce media spots,” Parker said.
Though Aug. 6, Bullock has raised $1,250,945 and Hill $965,346.
“But consider Tester will raise $10 million, Rehberg around $7 million or $8 million, and the outside money in that race could be in excess of $20 million to $30 million,” Parker said. “That will force them — and to an even greater extent, candidates down (the) ballot to be more creative with their money.”
He said that will mean more get-out-the-vote efforts, more newspaper advertising and perhaps more radio advertising.
“I also think they will rely more heavily on the state party organizations to fund their general election campaign, much in the way presidential campaigns rely on their national party organizations,” Parker said.