Gov. Steve Bullock and his Republican critics – including GOP challenger Greg Gianforte – are constantly trading charges over who’s the hypocrite or benefactor when it comes to corporate and “dark” money in the campaign.
Yet when you drill down on the facts, some constants emerge:
“Dark money” is money spent to influence elections, but whose true source and amounts are not publicly reported.
Groups spending dark money are often nonprofits that say their purpose is to “educate” voters on issues, rather than advocate for or against a specific candidate. However, their advertising or other efforts often clearly criticize or support a candidate.
For example, Americans for Prosperity-Montana, a conservative, free-market advocacy group, sent 80,000 mailers last month criticizing Bullock for vetoing a school-choice bill.
Yet under the law, AFP does not have to report its donors or spending on the mailer, because the new Montana law to force disclosure of such spending applies only to efforts made within 60 days of an election.
Gianforte and fellow Republicans have labeled Bullock a “hypocrite” for criticizing dark and corporate money, yet helping to raise both while he was chair of the DGA in 2015.
Bullock acknowledges that he helped the DGA raise corporate money, which will be used to campaign for Democratic governors, including himself.
“There’s probably nobody in Montana who’s worked harder than me to keep unlimited dollars out of the state,” he told MTN News this week. “But that doesn’t mean … we can just unilaterally disarm, by any measure.”
Yet he says he didn’t play any active role in helping the DGA raise funds for its dark-money group, America Works USA.
He also says while he was DGA chair, America Works USA money was not used to influence elections.
Money for the group has been a small part of the funds raised by the DGA. There’s also no evidence that either America Works USA or similar groups controlled by the Republican Governors Association have spent any money on the Montana race.
The money spent by the DGA or the RGA to influence the Montana governor’s race has been publicly reported, either to the Internal Revenue Service or the state Office of Political Practices.
Bullock also notes that if any dark-money group spends within 60 days of the election in Montana, the new law he pushed for in 2015 – the Disclose Act – would require reporting on the source and spending of that money.
As attorney general, Bullock in 2012 also defended Montana’s 100-year-old law that barred corporations from spending money to influence state elections. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law, citing its precedent in the 2010 Citizens United ruling that said such spending is a restriction on free speech.
One of the lawyers who initiated the Citizens United case is James Bopp, an Indiana attorney who’s been at the forefront of challenging restrictions on campaign contributions across the country.
The Bullock campaign noted that Gianforte has hired an attorney in Bopp’s Montana office in Bozeman to do work for his campaign and that Gianforte is listed on a 2014 tax form as a “substantial contributor” to Bopp’s nonprofit group, the James Madison Center for Free Speech.
Gianforte told MTN News that he and his wife, Susan, have given to many charitable causes, and that he doesn’t believe their support of Bopp’s center was anything significant.
When asked if he supports efforts to challenge limits on campaign contributions, Gianforte says only that “we should have transparency in elections.”
He also has declined to say whether he would have signed the Disclose Act, instead saying that he’ll comply with it and will “closely monitor the progress” of the law.
The Bopp law firm in Montana is representing a group challenging key elements of the Disclose Act as unconstitutional.
Gianforte said his campaign lawyer, Anita Milanovich, is affiliated with the Bopp firm, but that he hired her simply because she’s an excellent attorney on campaign issues. Milanovich is one of the lawyers working on the case challenging the Disclose Act.
“Anita is one of the best Montana lawyers you’re going to find; you’d be foolish not to work with her,” he said.