Just three weeks before Montana’s primary election, a federal judge shot down Montana’s campaign contribution limits, perhaps opening up state elections to a lot more money. Perhaps not, as U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell provided no opinion on what the limits should be; he just found ours too low.
Either way, the ruling drew strong opinions on both sides. This was expected, given Montana’s history and the state’s dogged resistance to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that said unlimited political spending by corporations and unions is protected under the First Amendment.
Democrats largely criticized Lovell’s decision. For his part, Gov. Steve Bullock called it a “travesty” and a “step back toward the era of the Copper Kings.” He was referring to the era of industrialists Marcus Daly and William A. Clark, the latter who bribed Montana lawmakers for their votes (this was when U.S. senators were chosen by their respective Legislatures).
True, it could get ugly with more money pouring into campaign coffers. It is, however, unlikely to get as ugly as it was in 1900 when the U.S. Senate was so horrified by Clark’s brazen corruption that it helped usher in the 17th Amendment, which requires that citizens instead of Legislatures elect senators.
Republicans were more supportive of Lovell’s ruling. Jeff Essmann, chairman of the Montana Republican Party, said, “evidence shows that Montana politicians are relatively incorruptible. Montana voters are able to see for themselves where contributions are coming from under our campaign disclosure laws.”
Meanwhile, Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl has dropped his 2012 complaint against former GOP gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill. That year, Lovell (yes, the same judge) struck down state limits before an appeals court reinstated them. In the time in between those rulings, Hill accepted a $500,000 donation from the Republican Party.
Motl continues to warn of “unlimited amounts of money contributed to political candidates” and asked the federal judge for an immediate stay on the ruling. He also raised contribution limits for individual and political action committees, but not political parties. Now, individuals can contribute up to $1,990 to gubernatorial candidates and $990 for other statewide election cycles. PACs can contribute up to $10,610 to gubernatorial candidates and $2,650 for other statewide election cycles.
Whether these numbers stand is anyone’s guess, but it’s clear the fight isn’t over. GOP attorney Matthew Monforton told Lee Newspapers that the larger limits are “defiance yet again by Commissioner Motl of a federal court order. He should anticipate renewed litigation if he continues to give the finger to Judge Lovell.”
Monforton argues there shouldn’t be any contribution limits on anything. Maybe, there is a middle ground between the two sides, but it appears far off. And right now, it’s also unclear if a third party exceeds the state’s new limits the state could do anything about it.
Lovell’s decision seemed inevitable. Despite Montanans overwhelmingly passing an initiative in 2012 that prohibits corporate spending in state and national elections, the state’s campaign rules continue to be challenged and are legally difficult to defend.
Despite this new normal, where elections are littered with dark money, the recent presidential primary has proven candidates can cap themselves. A super PAC spent a whopping $100 million supporting Jeb Bush for president. Look how well that worked out for him.