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More money raised in Montana attorney general race than seen in past 20 years

More money raised in Montana attorney general race than seen in past 20 years

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Austin Knudsen and Raph Graybill

Republican Austin Knudsen, left, and Democrat Raph Graybill, right, are running for Montana attorney general.  

The two attorney general candidates squaring off in November have raised more money than any of their predecessors in the past two decades at this point in the race.

Democrat Raph Graybill took in $371,893 in cash as of June 15, and Republican Austin Knudsen received $191,709. 

It’s not the sort of million-dollar totals seen in top-ticket races, but it stands out compared to other years: Going back to 2000, no other Montana attorney general race has seen as much fundraising by the two primary winners at this point in the election.

The latest reports were compared to the same reporting periods in previous years. Past totals were adjusted for inflation.

The next highest totals were seen in 2008, also an open seat year, when Democrat Steve Bullock and Republican Tim Fox sat at about two-thirds of the cash donations that Graybill and Knudsen are reporting. 

Chris Muste, associate professor of political science at University of Montana, said the current numbers point to a years-long trend in growing campaign costs.

What’s more notable, he said, was the fundraising gap between the two candidates. Graybill has nearly double the cash donations Knudsen has. Both candidates are relatively young and not widely known to the average Montanan, Muste added.

“So these are big numbers, and it’s even more impressive because this is a year when there are a lot of other races, and so a contributor who wants to support candidates is looking at this huge array of opportunities to donate their money,” Muste said.

The November ballot will feature every statewide office, plus seats on the Public Service Commission and a contested Montana Supreme Court race. That’s on top of U.S. House and Senate races and the presidential contest.

Graybill is a first-time candidate who qualified to run by just a couple of months, due to the five-year practice law for Montana attorneys general. He beat primary opponent Kim Dudik 57% to 43%.

Bullock, now a term-limited governor, endorsed Graybill, which likely gave him a leg up in fundraising, according to Muste. Graybill works as Bullock’s chief legal counsel.

Knudsen was first elected as a state representative in 2010 and served two terms as Speaker of the House. He’s now serving his first term as Roosevelt County Attorney, in his home county in the northeast corner of the state.

Knudsen beat primary opponent Jon Bennion 60% to 40%. Knudsen endorsed Rep. Greg Gianforte for governor early on, which likely helped him win over the conservative base of Republican primary voters, Muste said.

Knudsen has collected donations from farmers and ranchers, members of the oil and gas industry, a federal PAC affiliated with Reynolds Tobacco Company, Charter Communications and beer and wine distributors, among others.

Graybill's donors include labor unions, attorneys and former Montana Supreme Court justices Patricia Cotter, Mike Wheat and Terry Trieweiler. 

The attorney general position has been used more and more in recent years as a tool by states to push back against presidential policies. Multistate lawsuits have spiked under the Trump administration, according to Paul Nolette, an associate professor at Marquette University, who tracks the lawsuits.

The attorney general position can also serve as a pathway to the governor’s office, as it did with Bullock and Marc Racicot.

After the governor’s office, the attorney general race likely tops the priority list for both major political parties in the state, said Muste, the UM professor.

“Both state parties really care about this office,” he said.

After the primary, the Cook Political Report shifted the race from leaning Republican to tossup, saying Republican primary voters chose a "more conservative nominee with less crossover appeal, while Democrats are hoping to benefit from the tailwind of outgoing Gov. Steve Bullock's U.S. Senate bid this fall."

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