HELENA – Money isn’t gushing into the Montana governor’s campaigns like it is in the U.S Senate races, but Democrat Steve Bullock and Republican Rick Hill still should have plenty of cash to get their messages out to Montana voters.

Money from other sources likely will be spent to influence what national politicos rate as one of the most competitive governor’s races in the country.

Bullock, Montana’s attorney general, starts out with more than a 5-1 early cash advantage over Hill after the June 5 primary election, according to the latest campaign finance reports. Bullock had $772,550 left in the bank as of July 5 to $146,177 for Hill, a former congressman.

Why the disparity? For one thing, Bullock has reeled in $1.16 million in total campaign funds so far to Hill’s $758,141.

But another critical factor is the difference in their respective primary races.

Hill was locked in a competitive, crowded GOP primary. As the frontrunner, he was under attack by some rivals and was forced to spend down his bank balance. Hill prevailed in the seven-candidate field with 34 percent of the vote.

Bullock, in contrast, faced only a token opponent who filed on the final day, raised little money and didn’t campaign much. He was able to stockpile cash and grabbed 86 percent of the Democratic votes en route to an easy win.

Hill’s campaign racked up debts and loans totaling $71,622, while Bullock had none.

In some ways, the Bullock and Hill finances compare at this stage to those of Democrat Brian Schweitzer and Republican Bob Brown after their 2004 primaries for governor.

After the primaries, Schweitzer started out with nearly a 10-1 financial advantage. He had $440,000 in the bank to Brown’s nearly $45,000, while Brown had debts of nearly $53,000.

Brown had survived a tough four-way primary but was forced to drain his campaign treasury and go in debt.

His main GOP challenger, Pat Davison, a Billings investment adviser, was dumping lots of what was thought to be his personal money into his race. It turned out to be cash that Davison’s clients had given him to invest, but which Davison had embezzled. He later wound up going to federal prison.

Schweitzer, meanwhile, coasted through an easy primary against an ex-legislator and was able to hoard most of his cash for the fall.

Brown was able to narrow the financial gap somewhat in the fall, but still lost to Schweitzer by 4 percentage points. Schweitzer raised $1.4 million to Brown’s $1.1 million for the race.

Brock Lowrance, Hill’s campaign manager, said Bullock’s fundraising lead isn’t insurmountable and that Hill’s primary spending will pay additional dividends.

“Throughout this campaign, we’ve been thankful for about 3,000 Montanans that have made a contribution and gotten behind Rick,” he said. “As this campaign continues to grow, we’re going to see more Montanans make an investment in this campaign.”

He added, “Steve Bullock had the luxury of a free and clear primary, while we had to use resources in the primary, but that was a benefit to us because we were out there able to talk to Montanans about the issues that matter. While Steve Bullock was out raising money in the primary, we were out talking to voters, appearing at forums and dinners, formulating and talking about the issues that matter.”

In response, Kevin O’Brien, manager of Bullock’s campaign, said that Bullock has 4,028 individual donors from across Montana.

“Fundraising is part of modern politics,” O’Brien said. “Steve’s fundraising strength is indicative of the support he’s garnering from every corner of the state, support that is derived from face-to-face conversations with friends and supporters.

“We believe that we’re the grass-roots campaign running this time around, and we think that includes our fundraising.”

Last week, for example, supporters in Shelby, Helena and Bozeman opened their homes and invited their friends over to meet Bullock, he said.

“They appreciate the work Steve has done protecting families (as attorney general),” O’Brien said.

Brown’s campaign manager, Jason Thielman, summed it up this way: “The reality is, regardless of whether it’s Steve Bullock’s campaign or Rick Hill’s campaign, they are both spending 96 percent of their time raising money. Rick may be spending 97 percent of his time now, and Bullock only 96 percent.”

Money from other sources will be spent in the race too.

The Democratic and Republican governors associations already are involved in different ways in the race. Their activities, however, can’t be coordinated with the candidates’ campaigns.

And corporations, freed by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Montana case and an earlier decision, for the first time in a century can spend unlimited funds through independent expenditures for and against candidates. Unions can do likewise.

Chuck Johnson is chief of the Missoulian State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached at (800) 525-4920 or (406) 447-4006. His email address is chuck.johnson@lee.net.

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