Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Bullock’s campaign has filed a lawsuit against the campaign of Bullock’s Republican opponent, Rick Hill.
Bullock accuses Hill’s campaign of illegally accepting more than $500 thousand in contributions from the state Republican Party, well over the prescribed limit.
Hill counters the donation was completely legal, given during a short window when limits on campaign contributions were dropped.
Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor John Walsh held a late afternoon press conference Thursday inside the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse.
“We are asking the court to stop Congressman Hill from spending or continuing to spend these illegal contributions and secondly to force the Congressman to return illegal contributions,” Walsh said.
During a phone interview earlier in the day, Bullock justified his campaign’s decision to file a district court lawsuit over a half million dollar donation made to Republican Rick Hill’s gubernatorial bid from the state GOP.
“I think it underscores here’s a guy who will say anything and do anything to get elected and I think Montanans deserve a lot better,” Bullock said.
The half-million dollar donation is well above the about $20 thousand a political party can legally give a candidate. But earlier this month District Judge Charles Lovell struck Montana’s law regarding campaign contribution limits. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals has put a stay on Lovell’s ruling since then. Rick Hill’s campaign says between Lovell’s order and the stay from the 9th circuit, unlimited donations were legal.
Montana State University Political Science Professor David Parker agrees.
“Essentially for that six day window, you did have no limits and the Republicans took advantage of that,” Parker said.
Steve Bullock says his campaign did not take advantage of that window, adding anything received over the legal amount was refunded. Bullock has been on record many times supporting Montana’s campaign contribution limits, and fighting court decisions striking them down in his role as Attorney General. Maintaining those limits has been a major theme of his run for Governor. MSU’s David Parker says that would have put the Bullock campaign in a tough spot when unlimited donations were legal.
“They couldn’t have done the same thing, they couldn’t have gone out and gotten a big contribution,” Parker said. “So what they’re trying to do is highlight it within their narrative and say hey this is a consequence of not having these limits is people can come in, slap down a ton of money and they can own this election and they can own that particular candidate, so this fits completely within their narrative.”
Republican Candidate Rick Hill sees nothing wrong with taking the money from the Montana GOP. He says Judge Lovell’s ruling striking down the contribution limits allowed his campaign to make the race a little more fair after he has been the subject of withering negative ads from outside groups.
“If there’s anything unethical going out there it’s the Democrat Governor’s Association attacking my reputation dishonestly, that’s where the unethical conduct has been,” Hill said.
Bullock has also faced negative advertising from outside groups. Yet, Hill correctly points out Bullock has received more of his campaign money from outside Montana than the Hill campaign.
“Lawyers and lobbyists from California and Maryland and Virginia and that really has distored the campaign,” Hill said. “What Lovell is really trying to say is Montanans really ought to have an equal voice in who should be come their next governor and this will come close at least. I don’t think this will level the playing field.”
The state GOP gave Republican Attorney General Candidate Tim Fox $32 thousand in addition to the half million dollars given to Hill during the window of Lovell’s ruling. Executive Director Bowen Greenwood would not disclose where that money came from, but said a report later in the month will provide more detail.
“We will disclose our donors exactly the way the law tells us to,” Greenwood said.
Back to the legality of the donation, the Bullock campaign says that even if receiving the donation during the window was legal, keeping it after the 9th Circuit’s stay is not legal. Again, MSU Political Science Professor David Parker thinks the donation looks ok, but he doesn’t think he would have made that move if he was the state Republican Party, because of the appearance of it all.
“It may have been legal, but it looks like there’s this activity that is kind of not above board. It looks like they’re trying to purchase the election. Whether it’s legal or not, it still doesn’t look good,” Parker said.
The Montana GOP says this money will help spread Rick Hill’s message to voters, and that’s a good thing.
Attorney general candidate Pam Bucy is disclosing she also accepted — and then refunded — a large campaign contribution during the brief time a judge said they were allowed. Bucy said she returned a $35,000 donation to the Montana Democratic Party on Tuesday when an appeals court made it clear that reinstated limits would be in place through the election. The Democratic Party said Thursday its only abnormally large donation was to Bucy.
—The Associated Press contributed to this report