BILLINGS — Campaign spending in Montana’s U.S. House race is surging in the final days with significant amounts placed on getting out the vote.
Campaign spending has surged deep into record territory, with at least $17 million flowing into the race from the campaigns and outside groups hoping to influence the nationally watched contest.
Republicans are significantly outspending Democrats, according to donation and expenditure reports filed in the last weeks of the campaign.
Democrat Rob Quist, Republican Greg Gianforte and Libertarian Mark Wicks are campaigning to replace Republican Ryan Zinke as Montana's only U.S. House representative. Zinke resigned March 1 to become Interior secretary.
In the past 20 days, outside groups have spent $228,061 in support of Quist. Groups supporting Gianforte have spent $356,476. Much of that money is being spent on getting out the vote. The Progressive Turnout Project, for example, has spent $14,825 on employees to get out the vote for Quist. The Republican National Committee spent $16,939 on Gianforte phone calls May 20-21.
Turnout in rural Montana counties, where Republicans do well, has been strong with more than 70 percent of absentee ballots returned by rural voters, according to Montana’s secretary of state. Turnout through Monday had absentee ballots from rural counties comprising 30 percent of the state’s absentee vote. That’s better than the normal absentee turnout, which is 25 percent, said Craig Wilson, Montana State University Billings political science professor emeritus.
Combined, the rural county absentee vote is higher than the turnout in Missoula and Gallatin counties, Montana’s second and third largest counties for absentee ballots. Anchored by the state’s two largest universities, those are counties where Democrats need higher turnout, Wilson said.
Money spent against the candidates is more lopsided. Republican groups have spent almost four times as much targeting their opponent as Democrats have. That's $1.93 million against Quist and $442,450 against Gianforte in the past 20 days.
“We are receiving a number of phone calls in our home, polling, in our home,” Wilson said. “We have at 10 polls, three were people, the rest were robo polls.”
Wilson said the late flurry of the spending on advertising and even appearances by surrogates like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Republican Vice President Mike Pence will have minimal effect given the number of people who have already voted.
Roughly 34 percent of registered Montana voters had cast ballots by the end of Monday. Turnout is expected to be in the low 50th or high 40th percentile by the time voting ends Thursday.
The sum is especially remarkable — or alarming — because of the 85-day campaign period for a special election.
The congressional race two years ago, which until now was the state's most expensive congressional race, generated about $9 million in spending for a campaign that spanned primary and general elections.
The campaign committees of Quist and Gianforte have raised at least $10 million combined, while outside groups have spent more than $7.1 million thus far.
The Quist campaign announced Tuesday that it had topped $6 million in contributions, noting that it had generated about $1 million in small donations over the past five days.
That amount could not be immediately verified because it had not yet been reported to the Federal Elections Commission.
Gianforte's campaign said it has raised about $4.6 million, including a last-minute loan of $500,000 from Gianforte. He had previously lent his campaign $1 million. The combined total in direct contributions is a record haul for a Montana congressional race.
"There isn't much competition for dollars right now," said Denise Roth Barber, the managing director of the Helena-based National Institute on Money in State Politics. "With the exception of the race in Georgia, these candidates are not competing for money with other competitive races in other parts of the country. So there's a lot of money to be given."
The Montana race is also being closely watched by national groups, she said, as a possible harbinger of things to come — not only in the Georgia special election in June, but also in next year's wider battle over Congress during the Trump era.
Most of that money coming into the race has been used to finance a barrage of advertising on radio and television, much of it negative.
Libertarian Mark Wicks has yet to file a fundraising report with the FEC.
The money flowing into the campaign from independent outside groups, which can spend unlimited amounts of money, has mostly benefited Gianforte. Groups supporting the Bozeman entrepreneur have spent more than $6.3 million, according to FEC records, including $2.4 million from the Congressional Leadership Fund.
The fund has also spent heavily to influence another special congressional election in Georgia, as have the Republican Party committees.
The Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have combined for more than $3.1 million.
While Quist has gotten most of his money from individual donors, he has also benefited from independent campaign committees, such as Planned Parenthood and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which was responsible for about half of the roughly $800,000 in spending on Quist's behalf.