Montana Politics Steve Bullock

Unlimited Spending in Montana Races

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Last month, James Bopp (of Citizens United fame) graced Helena with his presence, when he argued to dismantle Montana’s contribution limits. Today, Judge Lovell ruled in favor of Bopp and American Tradition Partnership, allowing donors to dump unlimited sums into state races.

Here’s what the Court said (citations omitted):

[…]the Court concludes that Montana’s contribution limits in Montana Code Annotated § 13-37-216 are unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The contribution limits prevent candidates from “amassing the resources necessary for effective campaign advocacy.” The defendants are therefore permanently enjoined from enforcing these limits.

This decision ignores how campaigns actually work. The two candidates who sued, Steve Dogiakos and John Milanovich, weren’t hamstrung by contribution limits, but by their own half-hearted campaigns. When he ran in 2008, Dogiakos only raised money from seven other people, three of whom maxed out at $160. Milanovich didn’t raise any money in 2010, when he lost in the Republican primary. In 2008, he raised money from ten individuals, and only one who maxed out. If a candidate can only get donations from ten people, he’s got bigger problems than getting more from the one person who maxed out. Neither candidate got more than 32% of the vote.

Lovell’s decision is a striking example of judicial activism; it had nothing to do with Citizens United. While that case allowed unlimited money to be spent independently of campaigns, the Court left direct contribution limits in place, to prevent the appearance of corruption from a few high-dollar donors. The U.S. Supreme Court and many state courts have long upheld the validity of contribution limits.

Before this decision, Montana had the lowest contribution limits in the country—Hill & Bullock could only raise $630 from any one individual or PAC. Legislative limits were $160.  Our low contribution limits allowed citizen candidates to win with grassroots support, instead of relying on a few wealthy donors. Now, Montana has joined the 12 states where a donor can give any amount, unless the next Legislature can be persuaded to reenact higher limits.

This election, expect more money to flow into the governor’s race for a few reasons:

  • Much more national money. Both the Republican and Democratic Governors Associations can stretch their advertising dollars by giving directly to the campaigns, instead of their independent $500,000 ad buys. Because of federal election law, candidates can buy TV ads four times cheaper than outside groups. Bullock’s $165,000 cash-on-hand advantage (equivalent to $660,000 of Republican outside spending) means less in a world where the national parties can write $2 million checks.
  • More from connected Montanans, less from the grassroots. Both candidates can solicit more from several hundred donors who had already maxed out. Since those who give the maximum tend to be lobbyists and association members, expect a higher percentage of special interest money.
  • Greater role for PACs. Until this point, PACs have played a limited role in state elections. After maxing out to a few candidates, they really couldn’t give more than a couple thousand dollars. With unlimited donations, more money can come from the more prolific PACs: the Contractors, Realtors, Petroleum Association, Northwestern Energy, and a few of the labor unions.

The full text of the decision is available here. It’s brief—the decision was expedited before the election, so the full reasoning will be published later.

(Thanks to FollowTheMoney.org and the National Conference of State Legislatures for the linked sources)

About the author

Tyler Evilsizer

Raised in Helena, Tyler's particularly passionate about the environment, transparency, and wonky budget policy. The views expressed are his own.

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