BILLINGS – The fiercely contested race for Montana’s next attorney general remains a toss-up heading into the campaign’s final weeks, as Republicans look to reclaim an office held by Democrats since 1993.
Republican Tim Fox and Democrat Steve Bullock have grappled over sex predator laws, stream access issues, gun rights and even oil and gas development in the race to be Montana’s top lawyer.
Also at stake in the race is a coveted seat on the Montana Land Board, which manages 5 million acres of state-owned land.
In several other statewide campaigns, incumbents remain clear favorites — for governor, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House. But the attorney general’s seat is up for grabs, with Democrat Mike McGrath pushed out by term limits after eight years.
The scramble to succeed him has become contentious in recent weeks, with the two campaigns trading barbs over whether enough is being done to protect against sex offenders.
“There is some buzz about the attorney general’s race,” said Craig Wilson, a political analyst at Montana State University-Billings. “Both parties want it, not only because its the most important of the second-tier races, but because you have to go back to Marc Racicot to find your last Republican attorney general.”
Fox has hammered on three issues — gun rights, stronger protections against sex predators and the Land Board’s potential to spur energy development. He said he recognizes the range of issues faced by attorney, but is focusing on those that reflect the desires of voters.
“This is about protecting Montanans, not only from criminals but from those who could be intent on infringing on their rights,” Fox said.
Bullock is running a wide-ranging campaign that pledges to crack down on prescription drug abuse and scams directed at the elderly. He wants to launch cyber-crime education programs in schools, preserve fishing and hunting access rights and strengthen consumer protection laws.
“The breadth of this job is something that really impacts our lives here,” Bullock said. “Within that is what kind of Montana are my kids going to be raised in. Are they going to be safe in schools and communities? Will they be able to have access to streams?”
The attorney general oversees the 750 employees of the Department of Justice, with 40 attorneys and a $70 million budget.
Both candidates are private attorneys in Helena with experience working as lawyers for the state.
Bullock, 42, has spent a combined six years working in major New York and Washington, D.C., law firms. He said that would give him an edge when Montana takes on corporate adversaries in court. In 2004, after his most recent stint out-of-state, he opened his own practice, the Bullock Law Firm.
Bullock’s first attempt to get elected was in 2000, when he suffered a lopsided loss to McGrath in the attorney general primary. In 2006, he directed a campaign to raise the state’s minimum wage through a ballot initiative. He prevailed in this year’s three-way Democratic primary with 42 percent of vote.
Fox, 51, emphasizes that he’s practiced law in Montana for his entire 21-year career, gaining experience in state and federal courts while staying close to his roots. He is a partner in the Helena firm Gough, Shanahan, Johnson and Waterman.
After volunteering on other GOP campaigns, this is his first run for elected office. Fox beat Lee Bruner of Butte in the primary with 57 percent of the vote.
The latest campaign finance reports show Bullock has raised at least $297,000 and Fox $207,000.
That’s a hefty sum for an attorney general’s race, and observers say the candidates will need the money to help build name recognition since neither has held elected office.
Both are receiving help from Democratic and Republican party officials, who are touting the importance of the race and devoting staff resources to bolstering their respective candidates.
State Republican chairman Erik Iverson said that with rising energy prices, the attorney general’s seat on the five-member land board has added importance this year.
“It’s such an important part of the job that’s been forgotten in past elections,” he said.
For the Democrats, it’s about holding onto an office that’s emerged as a party stronghold over the last 16 years. Montana Democratic spokesman Kevin O’Brien said the race is “high profile and high priority” among the party’s leadership.
“It’s all hands on deck,” O’Brien said.
The parties also are looking to Bullock and Fox as rising stars who could make strong governor or congressional candidates down the road, according to James Lopach, chair of the political science at the University of Montana.
“This is a training ground,” Lopach said. “They like to get somebody on deck ready to go to bat with these higher races.”
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