HELENA – Republican Rick Hill’s governor campaign has canceled its advertising, polling and a statewide tour to comply with a district judge’s order last week not to spend a disputed $500,000 donation, his campaign manager said in court Monday.
“We are effectively dark on radio and television right now,” Brock Lowrance testified in District Court.
Asked its impact as the Nov. 6 election approaches, Lowrance said, “You’re not out there the final week. It’s a critical time.”
However, the Hill campaign has received $166,000 – a $100,000 loan from Hill and $66,000 in donations – since the temporary order went into effect and expects to begin advertising again by Tuesday at the latest, he said.
State District Judge Kathy Seeley of Helena heard arguments Monday, but did not rule immediately. Seeley told Hill’s attorney she was not prepared at that time to dismiss the Bullock campaign’s complaint.
While Bullock’s lawyers presented Seeley with their proposed findings and legal conclusions, Hill’s attorney, Cory Swanson, said he’ll get in his proposals by 3 p.m. Tuesday.
Swanson tried to convince Seeley to drop the temporary order she issued last Wednesday directing the Hill campaign not to spend the contested $500,000 donation from the Republican National Committee on Oct. 4.
He said the donation was legal because it came during the six-day window between Oct. 3, when a federal judge struck down Montana’s donation limits, and Oct. 9, when a federal appeals court reinstated them.
Seeley likewise didn’t rule on a motion by lawyers from Hill’s opponent, Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock, to extend the temporary order into a preliminary injunction blocking the spending. Bullock and his attorneys said Hill broke the law by taking a donation that’s greater than the $22,600 aggregate limit that state law allows a political party to donate to a candidate for governor for an entire campaign.
Bullock’s lawyers called as a witness Raymond Strother, who worked as a political consultant for Democratic national and state candidates for more than 40 years before retiring to Bozeman. He testified on the impact of a $500,000 donation on an opposing campaign in a tight race.
“If it was unexpected and it was unplanned, it would be catastrophic to the person who was going to have the $500,000 spent against,” Strother said.
Under cross-examination by Bullock attorney Jim Hunt, Lowrance acknowledged that the temporary order didn’t prevent Hill’s campaign from spending money it had raised before the $500,000 came.
“No, but to comply with the (order), it came back so fast, we felt we needed to shut everything down,” Lowrance said.
Hunt asked, “You know the court didn’t require you to not spend money not part of the $500,000.”
“Yes,” Lowrance replied.
In his summary to the judge, another Bullock lawyer, Karl Englund of Missoula, said, “I think what we’ve heard today is that the Hill campaign overreacted to your order.”
Since Wednesday night, Lowrance testified that the campaign stopped $40,000 in radio ads and $100,000 in TV ads, except for four Hill ads that ran during a Saturday football game but couldn’t be yanked for technological reasons. The campaign canceled a statewide tour by Hill, budgeted for $7,000, and online advertising costing $10,000.
Likewise, Lowrance said he stopped $10,000 for polling in the closing days of the campaign, despite the fact “if you’re not polling, you’re flying blind.”
The campaign has other bills coming due in the next few days, including payroll, totaling $10,000.
Afterward, Bullock’s campaign spokeswoman, Kate Downen, said, “Congressman Hill is trying to play the victim, which is a little ironic because he’s the one who thinks he’s above the law.”
Lowrance said afterward that Hill took part in debates Friday and Saturday and was taking a day off Monday.
The campaign’s first priority is to get TV ads running again with the money that’s not part of the $500,000 and get Hill on the road, Lowrance said.
“We continue to fundraise,” Lowrance told reporters after the hearing.
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.