The U.S. Supreme Court made it clear Monday in a 5-4 decision: corporations now can make unlimited independent expenditures from their corporate treasuries for or against statewide, district and legislative candidates in Montana.
The court on Feb. 17 had temporarily blocked enforcement of Montana’s century-old ban on corporations making these independent expenditures in campaigns until it settled the issue.
On Monday, the issue was settled. Both corporations and unions can make unlimited independent expenses from their treasuries for independent expenditures for or against candidates.
So what will it mean for Montana elections this year?
“Simply put, it imposes the federal rules on the states — so the implication is beyond merely Montana,” said David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University. “That means that the type of activity we are seeing at the federal level now can, of course, happen at the state level.”
Parker said he suspects the greatest impact the decision will have will be on the governor’s race and other statewide races.
“What is interesting is that the candidates will be hampered by their relative inability to respond to this outside money,” he said.
While Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and his Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, can raise “fairly substantial sums of money,” Parker said the donation limits for state races are “significantly less.”
Individuals can give up to $2,500 to a U.S. Senate and House candidate in the primary and $2,500 more in the general election.
Limits in state races, however, are far less.
Montana allows an individual to donate up to $630 to a candidate for governor for the primary and an additional $630 for the general election.
The limit is $310 per election for a candidate for attorney general, Supreme Court justice, Supreme Court clerk, state auditor, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction and secretary of state.
“This will make it hard to counter all that outside money and make it easier for outside groups to establish the issue terrain,” Parker said.
The limit drops to $160 per election for candidates for the state House and Senate, Public Service Commission and district judge.
“It is harder to gauge the effect on legislative races,” Parker said. “Assumedly, competitive seats — like House District 63 here in Bozeman — will be the center of attention.”
But Parker questioned where this new source of money will be spent.
“TV ads are already getting locked up for the fall, so much of the money that might go into advertising for legislative races by these outside groups might go to grassroots, voter contact efforts,” the MSU professor said.
State Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, called for eliminating these state limits, which is something the Legislature can do.
“If we really want to empower the voice of individuals in Montana, we need to focus on removing the caps on what individuals can donate,” Essmann said.
He called the current limits “ridiculous.”
“In a state this large with seven different media markets, it makes it impossible for a (statewide) candidate to introduce himself or herself around the state,” Essmann said.