Montana GOP governor hopeful in limbo after court freezes his cash

October 25, 2012

The Republican nominee in a tight governor's race in Montana has been temporarily barred from spending his campaign funds as the courts sort through a contentious and very odd campaign finance situation.


Former congressman Rick Hill (R-Mont.). (AP Photo/Dylan Brown, Independent Record)

At issue is a $500,000 contribution that former congressman Rick Hill (R) accepted on Oct. 4 from the Montana Republican Party.

(Update 3:20 p.m.: The money essentially came from the Republican Governors Association, which transferred $600,000 to the Montana GOP on the same day.)

Hill accepted the funds the day after a federal judge lifted the limit on the amount of money candidates can accept from their state party -- the existing limit was $22,600 -- but by Oct. 9, a federal appeals court re-instated the limit. (This week, the U.S. Supreme Court opted not to hear an appeal of that decision, meaning the limit remains in place through Election Day.)

While Hill took advantage of the six-day window during which the contribution limit was lifted, his opponent, Democratic state Attorney General Steve Bullock, did not receive a similar transfer from his party.

Instead, Bullock's campaign is fighting to prevent Hill from using the funds, arguing that they amount to an "illegal contribution." Bullock has also launched a "Give It Back, Rick" website and has put the issue at the center of his campaign.

Bullock scored a win Wednesday when state district judge Kathy Seeley issued a temporary injunction preventing Hill from spending the $500,000 and ordered him to take down any advertising paid for with that money.

The problem? Hill has already spent most of that $500,000. What's more, taking that money off the table forced him to pull all of his advertising on Wednesday and Thursday, with less than two weeks until Election Day.

As of Oct. 17, Hill's campaign had $208,000 cash on hand and is trying to decide how much of its remaining funds are technically from that $500,000 contribution.

"In order to comply with the (injuction), we’re in kind of a hold right now," Hill campaign manager Brock Lowrance told The Fix. "We’ve been having to call back buys and stuff like that."

While $500,000 might not seem like a huge amount in the scheme of money in politics, it is in Montana. The sum represents more than one quarter of what Hill has raised for the entire campaign, and under the state's stringent campaign finance limits, it would be tough for him to raise money quickly from other sources to get back on the air.

Seeley has ordered the two sides back to court on Monday for oral arguments, meaning Hill is in limbo for at least the next four days. 

Republicans remain confident, though, that the funds will be usable, given that federal courts tend to overrule state courts on issues of free speech.

Election law expert Richard L. Hasen of the University of California-Irvine says he thinks federal courts will step in and allow Hill to use the funds.

"Ultimately, I think federal courts would determine he should be able to spend the money, although with the short time before the election, it is certainly possible that state court judges (as opposed to federal judges) could see things differently," Hasen said.

If Republicans can use the money, their gambit paid off and they will have a good chance to steal a governor's seat from Democrats. (Gov. Brian Schweitzer is term limited out of office.) If they can't, Hill has big problems without a consistent TV ad campaign down the stretch.

Almost every poll of the race has shown Hill and Bullock neck and neck, with a mid-September poll from Mason-Dixon showing Bullock at 44 percent and Hill at 43 percent. The winner succeeds term-limited Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D).

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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