With the Nov. 8 election less than a week away, Montana’s most expensive Supreme Court race in history, between incumbent Justice Ingrid Gustafson and attorney James Brown, continues to draw donations and release a firehose of last-minute spending in an effort to sway voters.
While Gustafson, a five-year justice on the court, and Brown, a private attorney and Republican president of the Public Service Commission, remain almost evenly matched in direct campaign donations and spending, contributions from third party groups backing the incumbent have skyrocketed in the final months of the campaign. Committees reported spending more than $2.2 million in independent expenditures in support of Gustafson in October alone, far outstripping the more than $615,600 in reported third party spending for Brown in the same month.
The roughly $2.9 million October haul between both candidates tops the record-breaking $1.3 million in independent expenditures Lee newspapers tallied on Oct. 18 for Gustafson and Brown since the race began this spring. It is also almost certainly an undercount. Montana Free Press identified reported expenditures from third party groups that were correctly disclosed in the state campaign finance system last month, but could not identify and count filings with significant errors, vague spending descriptions or incomplete data entry.
The totals also exclude spending from some active groups that may not have reported up-to-date receipts in state or federal campaign finance systems. Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s Leadership in Action PAC, for example, last reported a $25,000 contribution to the Montana Judicial Accountability Initiative in June but has been running more recent promotional ads on Facebook in support of Brown and against Gustafson.
The October surge supporting Gustafson came primarily from labor unions, trial attorneys and progressive environmental groups. The Montana Federation of Public Employees (MFPE), Montanans for Liberty and Justice and Wild Montana Voter Fund spent about $1.7 million collectively on behalf of the incumbent last month, with the trial attorneys’ Liberty and Justice group representing the single largest spender.
Recent mailers paid for by MFPE tout Gustafson as an impartial and fair candidate who has “a proven track record of protecting Montana’s Constitution and freedoms.” An October ad paid for by the trial attorneys PAC criticizes Brown as a former lobbyist and promotes Gustafson as a defender of public lands — the Brennan Center for Justice, a national nonprofit tracking paid television ads in the race, estimates the cost of that ad at $19,890.
Brown’s outside money has largely come from the Montana Republican State Central Committee, which has funneled money into supportive mailers, text messages, and digital and television advertisements for several months. In October, the committee disclosed more than $65,500 in spending supporting Brown — later that month, the party began sending letters attributed to Gov. Greg Gianforte calling Brown “a top-rate legal mind and true conservative,” and asking voters to support him in November. The party also signed off on October text messages attributed to South Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham asking voters to back Brown as the “conservative’s choice” for the Montana Supreme Court.
Brown also benefited from about $550,000 in October spending from the national Republican State Leadership Committee Judicial Fairness Initiative, which announced an anti-Gustafson television campaign in October.
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Montana is not the only state seeing expensive third party campaign strategies in Supreme Court races. Ohio, North Carolina and Illinois are also seeing top-dollar expenditures, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. In those states as well as in Montana, the Brennan Center cautions that a full picture of interest group spending is difficult to pin down because of dark money groups that funnel donations through different entities or don’t report major financial contributions until after Election Day.
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