Big Spending by Dems Brings Mixed Results

By Beacon Staff

Montana’s office of the commissioner of political practices recently posted the campaign finance data for the 2006 statewide legislative races on its Web site. While the information has been available by request in Helena, the release of the data in a consolidated, easy-to-read table represents an effort by the commissioner’s office to increase the transparency of Montana’s electoral politics.

The table also presents revealing information about the funds raised and spent by candidates for state office in the Flathead, and may provide some clues as to what spending will look like in the 2008 elections.

In a number of races, Democrats – both winners and losers – sometimes significantly outspent their Republican opponents. In Whitefish’s House District 4, Democrat Rep. Mike Jopek’s fundraising dwarfed that of Republican challenger Erik Jerde. Jopek’s receipts totaled $20,035, while Jerde’s totaled $310. Jopek spent nearly all of the funds he raised while Jerde reported using none.

In House District 3, which spans from Columbia Falls to West Glacier, Democrat newcomer Douglas Cordier raised $21,990 and spent $20,807 to win. His Republican opponent Dee Brown, raised and spent $5,625.

For House District 6, which encompasses the western edge of Whitefish and Kalispell, Democrat James Wheeler raised $19,015 and spent $13,905 – but was defeated by Republican Bill Beck who spent just over $5,000.

Democrat Dale McGarvey spent $24,868 for Kalispell’s House District 7, but lost to Jon Sonju, who raised $9,760 and spent $6,729. Current Kalispell City Councilman and Democrat Randy Kenyon, running for House District 8, raised $13,900 and spent $10,653, but lost to Craig Witte, who spent $4,980.

In the 2004 elections, Whitefish Democrat Dan Weinberg spent $64,738 to narrowly win Senate District 2 against Republican Donna Maddux, who spent $10,679.

But by no means did Democrats outspend Republicans across the board. Republican Greg Barkus of Kalispell successfully held onto Senate District 4 by spending $23,100 against Democrat Gerald Reckin, who spent $11,237. Republican Verdell Jackson of Kalispell’s Senate District 5 spent $23,607 against Democrat Richard Smith, who raised $21,923 and spent $13,949. Republican Rep. Bill Jones of Bigfork beat Democrat Edwin Blackler for House District 9, outspending him $12,713 to $3,700.

The figures candidates reported represent money raised and spent in both primary and general elections, so candidates in tough primaries likely spent more out of necessity. The amount raised, listed as total receipts, represent all the money a candidate acquired through personal contributions, personal loans, loans from others, and donations from political parties and political action committees (PAC).

There are also limits to the donations a candidate can receive. An individual may only donate $130 to candidates for the state legislature. A PAC representing, for example the teachers’ union, may only give $2,300 to a candidate for state Senate and $1,400 to a candidate for state House. PACs can, however, run advertisements on a candidate’s behalf so long as they do not coordinate with the candidate. State political party committees are also limited in what they can give to candidates: $1,050 for state senate candidates and $650 to state house candidates per election. Any money left over after a campaign must be returned to donors, given to charity or, if the candidate wins, rolled into a constituency services account.

As for whether the amount spent on each election is increasing significantly year by year, Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth can’t say for certain: “My sense is that they’re going up but there has been very little analysis here yet.”

But while spending may be increasing in legislative elections, nothing in the Flathead has reached into the realm of the most expensive Montana legislative election ever: Republican Roy Brown’s battle with Democrat Margaret McDonald for Senate District 25 in northeast Billings, where candidates raised $106,250 and spent nearly all of it. Brown emerged victorious, and even spent less, dropping a paltry $49,075.