The majority of contributions to Montana campaigns this cycle have come from residents, although money from out-of-state individuals and organizations might play a bigger role closer to Election Day.

Contributions from outside the state have featured most prominently in campaign attacks swapped in the race between Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, and tech entrepreneur Greg Gianforte, a Republican. The House race between Rep. Ryan Zinke, R, and Denise Juneau, D, has set campaign fundraising records, in part, by collecting beyond Montana. And although the majority of contributions to the nonpartisan Montana Supreme Court contest have come from in-state, one national Republican organization has listed the race as a top priority that could translate into big advertising buys.

In the gubernatorial race, Bullock has repeatedly characterized Gianforte as an outsider seeking to undermine Montana values for personal gain, noting that the $2.3 million raised by the Republican to-date includes $200,000 in loans and nearly $1 million in cash he contributed to his own campaign.

“Montanans deserve better than a wealthy copper king trying to buy the election,” Montana Democrats Spokesman Jason Pitt said in an email.

Gianforte Spokesman Aaron Flint did not see his candidate’s loans and personal contributions, nor spending that outpaced fundraising last month, as a sign of weakness.

“Greg is a job creator, a business man, not a career politician,” Flint said. “This is his first time running for office and he’s been working to get his name out there.”

He described their overall fundraising as “clear proof of momentum behind a high-wage job creator like Gianforte,” noting the Bozeman businessman has raised more money from individual contributors than Bullock since he started fundraising last August. State records show Gianforte raised $1.4 million from 5,278 itemized contributions compared to Bullock’s $1.3 million from 9,400 contributions in that period.  

“It’s clear Montanans want a governor to stand up against special interests,” Flint said, highlighting contributions to Bullock from individuals affiliated with groups that have lobbied against some natural resource projects on environmental grounds. “You’ve got Bullock taking money from Washington, D.C. and groups that are harming Montana’s economy.”

The reality is that both sides have, to some degree, overstated the contributions of outsiders, at least those made directly to their campaigns.

Of itemized individual contributions, 22 percent of those made to Gianforte were from out-of-state, as where 33 percent of donations to Bullock.

“That doesn’t sound like a very big difference to me,” Montana State University Political Scientist David Parker said. “Generally speaking, contributors outside Montana are not going to have an interest in donating in a governor’s race.”

Flint suggested just 11 percent of Gianforte’s contributions come from out-of-state when factoring in the donations less than $35, which are not itemized in the filings and therefore cannot be verified. A similar effect might be found in Bullock’s numbers.

As Parker noted is typical of state-level races, most of the out-of-state contributors appear to have professional or personal connections with the candidates. For Gianforte, that includes family in Pennsylvania, administrators from charities his family foundation has supported and tech company executives from Florida and California. For Bullock, that includes Democratic political organizers from Washington, D.C. as well as former classmates and professors from his college days in California and New York. Others, Parker said, likely have family or business ties to the state.

The attacks on Bullock from the Gianforte campaign have centered on political and party committee contributions rather than money raised from individuals. Shortly after launching his campaign, Gianforte announced a “campaign integrity pledge” not to accept money from such committees, calling Bullock a career politician bought by special interests.

Of the $2.3 million raised by Bullock to-date, just $126,107.12 has come from committees, a little over half of which list out-of-state addresses.

Pitt downplayed Republican criticisms of those contributions and noted that Gianforte’s pledge is deceiving.

"No wonder Montanans have a hard time trusting Greg Gianforte,” he wrote. “He benefits from out-of-state PAC money despite saying he wouldn't accept PAC money.”

The Republican Governor’s Association has so far bought television advertisements critiquing Bullock’s use of the state plane and the fundraising he did while leading the Democratic Governor’s Association. The Democrats’ group has likewise chipped in funding for an ad attacking Gianforte on public access issues.

Flint repeatedly criticized Bullock for supporting campaign finance reform then accepting support from the DGA, but he did not see the jabs as hypocritical given the RGA’s backing of Gianforte.

Both campaigns critique the other for support from state and national party organizations beyond what’s reported directly in their state filings. For instance, some of the staff working Bullock’s campaign are listed as employees of the state party, posts funded in part by national group dollars, while the RGA has provided money to the state GOP for video tracking, presumably of Bullock for the benefit of Gianforte’s campaign.

Out-of-state contributions to Montana campaigns have been larger and more straightforward in the race between Zinke, a first-term U.S. Congressman, and his Democratic challenger, Denise Juneau, who is term-limited from her post as the Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Fundraising for both campaigns have outpaced contributions to previous House elections in Montana. For Zinke, that appears to have been largely because of donations solicited by consultants through mailer campaigns to known Republican contributors nationwide.

A little over 80 percent of $1.7 million in itemized individual contributions made to Zinke came from donors outside Montana, according to federal election filings submitted earlier this month. By comparison, 38 percent of Juneau’s $645,717 in individual donations have been from out-of-state. Looking instead at the number of contributors, 89 percent of those who donated to Zinke’s campaign listed out-of-state addresses compared to 19 percent for Juneau.

Because contributions less than $200 do not have to be itemized, it is unclear how those percentages would change if Zinke’s $1.3 million in small contributions and Juneau’s $300,574 were to be included.

Campaign spokeswoman Lauren Caldwell said the fact more Montanans have donated to Juneau’s campaign than Zinke’s re-election effort is proof that residents want change.

“The momentum and support for our campaign is remarkable,” she wrote in an email. “Everyday Montanans are contributing to this campaign because they’re ready for a real leader in the House.”

The Zinke campaign has previously attributed the significant out-of-state support to the congressman’s leadership, particularly on issues of national security and as he secured a speaking spot at the recent Republican National Convention, not as evidence of reduced local backing.

“Rep. Zinke enjoys an incredibly wide base of support from Montanans and that will prove itself on Election Day,” the campaign said in a Tuesday statement.

Parker said the overall level of fundraising and the large share of out-of-state contributions, particularly those to Zinke’s campaign, more closely track with norms for U.S. Senate races.

National Democrats have listed the seat as one they need to flip in order to gain a majority in the House, suggesting groups will spend money on advertising in the race, contribute to the campaigns directly and provide on-the-ground political support.

To date, not much of that has materialized.

Juneau has so far only received $15,024 from party committees and $182,420 from other political action committees, while Zinke has received $2,000 and $473,797 respectively.

Another Montana election where big spending has been expected by outside groups, but not yet appeared is the contest for a seat on the Montana Supreme Court.

Cascade County District Judge Dirk Sandefur reports having about $75,000 left in the bank after spending more than $210,000 to-date, primarily on television and radio ads. Kristen Juras, an adjunct law professor at the University of Montana, has about $7,000 in the bank after spending nearly $90,000 so far, largely on print mailers and yard signs.

Although the race is nonpartisan, conservative-leaning groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Judicial Fairness Initiative of the Republican State Leadership Committee, have endorsed Juras. The same groups spent more than $1.1 million in a 2014 contest for a Montana Supreme Court seat, outspending the candidates’ own campaigns three-to-one. But so far this cycle, their related political action committees registered in Montana hold just a few hundred in the bank while the national organizations that fund them have spent most of their money raised to-date on other primaries, according to state and federal filings.

The Montana Law PAC, the campaign arm of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association, reports having raised more than $110,000, all of it from Montanans. Although the PAC has yet to make an endorsement, many of the association’s leading members have individually contributed to Sandefur’s campaign.

Parker said it’s unclear why there has been limited outside spending so far, primarily in the House and Montana Supreme Court races but also the contest for the governor’s post.

“I would’ve expected outside organizations to have started spending by now,” he said. “The big elephant in the room is why.”

Parker said there are two most likely reasons: The groups don’t see the seats as competitive as initially anticipated and will scale down financial investments accordingly, or it is still too early.

“The way you work a campaign, you schedule from November back,” he said. “The spending should start picking up soon, in August right around when kids go back to school.”

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Lee Newspapers state reporter Jayme Fraser emphasizes in investigative journalism and data reporting.

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