Greg Gianforte rally with Donald Trump Jr.

Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte walks with Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, Donald Trump Jr. and Chris Cox of the National Rifle Association to a campaign rally in May 2017 at the Kleffner Ranch in East Helena.

On the surface, $1,360 from billionaire businessman Doug Deason on a campaign donation report for a Montana gubernatorial candidate doesn’t look like much, but political icebergs are funny that way.

The Deason family ranked right behind billionaire George Soros’ clan in top contributors to candidates, parties and traditional political action committees in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That kind of political clout made Doug Deason’s April 1 donation to Republican Tim Fox no joke.

Fox, Montana’s attorney general, is in what’s expected to be a high-dollar fight with U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte for the Republican nomination for Montana's governor. Gianforte raised $534,573 in a month. As an unsuccessful candidate in 2016, Gianforte didn't hit that amount for five months. This cycle, Fox has raised more than $300,000 since January.

Early in Montana’s 2020 race for governor, big names are showing up on the donation sheets of presumed front-runners. State caps on campaign contributions keep the amounts fairly small — Deason’s donation is spread across the primary and general election cycles. More notable is the early attention by donors who could spend considerably more to influence Montana’s pick for governor. Exactly how much more is hard to gauge.

“It’s very complicated to follow the political spending trail of anyone individual now, given the ability for these individuals to hide their donations given to 501(c)(4)s and other groups that don’t have to disclose their donors,” said Denise Roth Barber, of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, which publishes the website FollowTheMoney.org, a searchable donor database.

Especially in Montana, where individual limits are very low, donors who want to flex their influence in a state race turn to the other avenues, Roth Barber said.

It’s early in the campaign season. Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney has been in the race only a week, so he has yet to face a donation reporting deadline. But Republicans who launched campaigns in the first two reporting periods of the year are already showing donors of national and regional influence on their balance sheets.

Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, who The New York Times called “the Most powerful conservative couple you’ve never heard of,” showed up on Gianforte’s second quarter campaign finance report. The report was Gianforte’s first as a 2020 candidate for governor. In less than a month, he raised more money than Republicans Fox and state legislator Albert Olszewski combined.

The Uihleins' political contributions in 2016 placed them third on the Center for Responsive Politics list, right behind the Pritzkers in the family rankings. Both billionaire families call Illinois home. The former’s wealth is rooted in shipping, the latter’s from investment and real estate, including Hyatt Hotels. It’s common to see Pritzker contributions to Montana Democrats’ campaigns.

Karen Wright, CEO of Ariel Corp., an oil and gas compressor business, is another mega-donor. In 2011, the publication Mother Jones identified Wright as a member of the "$1 million club," a group of seven-figure donors to the libertarian and conservative causes of billionaires Charles and David Koch.

There are other notable donors in Montana’s early campaign reports for governor. Will Castleberry, Facebook vice president of public policy, maxed out donations to Fox in early June. Public policy might be the thing the attorney general and Facebook VP have most in common.

In March, the National Association of Attorneys General questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the privacy of Facebook’s users — this after news broke that Facebook gave away users' personal information to other software developers.

Later in the spring, the AGs asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook and Google for antitrust and consumer protection issues. Fox is the National Association of Attorney Generals’ president-elect.

Idaho wellness industry magnates Frank and Belinda Vandersloot are Fox donors. Billionaire Frank Vandersloot is the former finance chairman of Republican Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, a position that gives the Melaleuca executive familiarity with fundraising nationally. The couple also donates to super PAC, which raise money without the collar of donation limits and engage in political campaigning without coordinating directly with candidates. The Vandersloots are on CRP's mega-donor list, as well.

Closer to home, six members of the Kenneally family have donated to Fox. The family owns the Town Pump convenience store and truck stop franchise, second only to knapweed in its population of Montana interstates and highways. The casinos that accompany the convenience stores are part of the family footprint, as well.

One Kenneally has donated to Gianforte, according to finance reports.

The True family of Casper, Wyoming, are early donors to Gianforte. The family owns True Oil, Eighty Eight Oil and several pipeline companies, including Bridger Pipeline, which suffered an oil spill in the Yellowstone River in 2015. The family has plans for moving oil from the Bakken and Wyoming oilfields and already moves crude across southern Montana.

There’s no shortage of donations from Montanans on the balance sheets of Gianforte or Fox. Gianforte listed 781 contributions from Montana donors collected in a month’s time. Those who donated to both the primary and general elections are listed twice.

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Fox reported 942 contributions from Montanans collected since January, the most of any candidate. Those who donated to both the primary and general elections are listed twice.

After Fox and Gianforte, the campaign reports for the rest of the field are much thinner in donors and donation totals.

Olszewski, reported raising $42,064 since April. He has loaned the campaign $100,000. Gianforte likewise has donated $50,000 to his own campaign.

Cooney is joined by House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, and ex-legislator Reilly Neill in the Democrats' attempt to hold the governor’s office for a fifth straight term, replacing two-term Gov. Steve Bullock.

Neill has raised $325. Schreiner has raised about $33,000.

The news from the second-quarter filing deadline, which was last week, was Gianforte’s ability to raise more than a half-million dollars in a month. The software millionaire-turned-politician has previously been considered formidable because he’s been willing to spend his own millions on two successful bids for Montana’s only U.S. House seat, and an unsuccessful bid to unseat Democratic Gov. Bullock in 2016.

But it shouldn’t be surprising that Gianforte early on would be the best candidate at fundraising. Gianforte has been on the Montana ballot three years in a row, essentially raising the donations constantly since 2015.

Robert Saldin, University of Montana political science professor and cohost of “Campaign Beat” on Montana Public Radio, said Gianforte’s 2017 special election campaign for U.S. House was particularly beneficial. There were only 17 special elections that year nationwide, each one drawing national media attention, which gave Gianforte and opponent Rob Quist outsized exposure.

Fox, the runner up in donations, has been a candidate for statewide election three times, all for attorney general. The most high-profile of the three races was against Bullock in 2008. Fox was defeated. The next two were against Democratic candidates who were easily beaten without the kind of fundraising needed to win a governor’s race.

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