Bullock, Gianforte Pick Up Primary Election Opponents

Terry Nelson of Hamilton will run against Gianforte in the Republican gubernatorial primary

By Associated Press

HELENA – Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and Republican Greg Gianforte will face challengers for their parties’ nominations in the June 7 primary elections, and a Democratic rival finally emerged for Attorney General Tim Fox.

Last-minute candidates scurried to meet the Monday deadline to file candidacy papers with the Secretary of State’s Office for the 2016 elections.

Among the late filers is Terry Nelson of Hamilton, who will run against Gianforte in the Republican gubernatorial primary. On the Democratic side, former Miles City legislator Bill McChesney filed Friday to run against Bullock.

Nelson said he had yet to begin raising money and acknowledged his candidacy faces long odds. But his candidacy is a serious one, he said.

“I know it’s a long shot. But in this political time, it appears that just about anybody can run and have a shot,” said Nelson, who is the planning administrator for Ravalli County and chairs his county’s GOP Central Committee.

Gianforte said he welcomes any Montanans to the race.

Larry Jent, a former member of the state legislature from Bozeman, said it took convincing by Democratic officials, including former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, to get him to run against Fox in November’s general election.

“Although I’m new to the job of running for AG — as in minutes — I’ve been around the block awhile,” Jent said. “I present a credible alternative for the Democratic Party.”

Fox will be a formidable candidate because of his popularity among both Republicans and Democrats. He has already won an endorsement from the Montana AFL-CIO. As of Monday morning, no other Republican had filed papers for attorney general.

“I believe Montanans will continue to support my record of improving public safety and pushing back against federal overreach,” Fox said in an email sent by a spokesman.

Bullock and Gianforte have already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to power their gubernatorial campaigns into November. Their underdog challengers, if they plan to mount serious campaigns, have lots of catching up to do.

The emergence of last-minute challengers lifts restrictions on fundraising on Bullock and Gianforte. Under state law, gubernatorial candidates can receive a maximum of $1,320 from an individual contributor — up to $660 per election. But if a candidate has no primary opponent, the total limit per contributor is reduced to $660, and any excess must be returned to the donor.

The quirk in the state’s law is one reason campaigns sometimes recruit challengers.

And party officials often recruit challengers — or sacrificial lambs — in races they have little chance of winning as a matter of principle. Neither party wants any seat to go unopposed.

“Sometimes there is a hope to recruit. Sometimes there is not. For major races, there is certainly an incentive to find a sacrificial lamb,” said Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist at Carroll College. That partly explains why Democrats recruited Jent for attorney general, he said.

In what is expected to be another high-profile and potentially expensive judicial race, a third candidate entered the race for a post on the state Supreme Court. Eric Mills, an attorney from Great Falls, has joined District Judge Dirk Sandefur and law professor Kristen Juras in vying for a seat on the high court.

One race that is sure to be watched closely is the re-election campaign of Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, who is accused of campaign finance violations by the Commissioner of Political Practices. A trial date is schedule for later this month. If convicted, he could be the first Montana elected official in about four decades to be booted from office.