HELENA — Outside groups poured at least $1.36 million in a Montana Supreme Court race that was supposed to be nonpartisan, demonstrating how increased political spending by interest groups has spilled over to down-ticket races.
A group backed by the Montana Trial Lawyers Association spent the most — almost $640,000 on incumbent Mike Wheat, Lee Newspapers of Montana reports. Wheat was re-elected to the court over challenger Lawrence VanDyke in the Nov. 4 election.
VanDyke was supported by several conservative and pro-business groups, including the Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee, which spent $477,500 on VanDyke’s behalf.
Wheat said he had no idea how much outside groups would spend, and that it may discourage qualified candidates from running for the court in the future.
“You’re going to have to go out and campaign for a long time, to counter the money, and it’s going to get ugly and it’s going to get dirty,” he said. “Why would people want to do that?”
Wheat said the outside spending is a consequence of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision allowing increased corporate spending in federal elections.
The candidates themselves spent about $250,000 combined on their campaigns. Candidates for the state’s high court can accept individual contributions of up to $320.
VanDyke said during the campaign that he knew he couldn’t win without outside help. VanDyke was the state’s solicitor general for about 1 1/2 years under Republican Attorney General Tim Fox. He previously worked for the law firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher in Texas and was a clerk for federal appellate Judge Janice Rogers Brown.
Wheat kept a seat he was appointed to in 2010 by then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer. He has been an attorney since 1978 and served on the state Legislature for two terms as a Democrat.
Judicial candidates in Montana aren’t allowed to label themselves as a member of a political party. A federal court ruled last year that parties may endorse judicial candidates, but the candidates themselves may not use those endorsements in their campaigns.
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