- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - In his bid for Montana governor, Bozeman entrepreneur Greg Gianforte has given his campaign more than $500,000 - and more of his personal wealth could stream into his campaign as the Republican ramps up his effort to unseat Gov. Steve Bullock and pours more money into expensive television spots and other advertising.

While moneyed candidates can dispense with the chore of fundraising by writing themselves checks, self-funded campaigns don’t always translate to victory at the ballot box.

“The candidates who rely very heavily on their own money to fund their campaigns have a tendency to lose a lot more often than those who have to raise money from their constituents,” said Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the Helena-based National Institute on Money in State Politics.

“Even though it’s a lot more work, you’re engaging with the electorate, who in turn is going to be voting for you” she said. “If you don’t have to do that, and all you have to do really is buy a bunch radio ads and TV spots and mailers, you’re engaging less with your electorate.”

State Sen. Matt Rosendale found that out two years ago, after loaning himself more than $1.1 million in a failed bid for Montana’s sole congressional seat. This time, Rosendale is running to become Montana’s next auditor, a relatively obscure statewide office that few Montanans understand.

According to his latest campaign finance statements, Rosendale reported no money raised thus far for November’s general election against Democrat Jesse Laslovich.

That worries Laslovich, who has about $183,000 in the bank and expects Rosendale to begin pouring his personal fortune into the race.

“I could spend the last year raising money and then someone can write a really big check that will dwarf what I’ve raised,” he said. “What I really fear is that our elections will only be for those who have the personal means to run for office.”

Rosendale did not immediately return a phone message or email.

Since launching his campaign for governor, Gianforte has raised $1.6 million from about 3,750 individual donors, according to data supplied by his campaign, including contributions that will be reported Friday with the state’s Commissioner of Political Practices. Nearly 90 percent of those donors hail from Montana and contributed 81 percent of all money Gianforte has collected from individual donors.

Gianforte’s campaign spokesman, Aaron Flint, noted that the governor has been raising money toward his re-election since before his first campaign report in August 2013, while Gianforte only began fundraising last August.

The money Gianforte has given to his campaign - $300,000 in direct contributions, $200,000 in loans and nearly $90,000 in in-kind contributions - has helped narrow the governor’s fundraising advantage.

“Greg has been on the ground, traveling 40,000 miles since last fall meeting with Montanans in cafes and town halls. This guy’s not just hiding in a bunker,” Flint said. “At the end of the day, if you have a positive message and you go out and meet with folks - that’s what matters.”

In comparison, Bullock has raised nearly $2 million from roughly 7,320 individual donors, about two-thirds of that amount from some 5,930 Montanans.

“Montanans remember the copper kings,” said Bullock’s campaign manager, Eric Hyers, repeating an oft-used refrain about the mining moguls who a century ago tried to influence state politics with their wealth. “Our campaign is backed by thousands of Montanans who are not only donating their time but also their money.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign watchdog group in Washington, D.C, two dozen congressional candidates are self-financing their campaigns. A fourth of have lost primaries or dropped out. Among the biggest losers was Maryland Democrat David Trone, who dropped $10 million, perhaps more, of his own money on his failed bid.

Two years ago, there were nearly 50 congressional candidates the center identified as self-funders, including Rosendale, who drew about 84 percent of his funding from his own pocket.

Rosendale finished third in a crowded primary, behind runner-up Corey Stapleton, who also loaned himself $200,000 in the 2014 race. “It would be much easier to be wealthy and write yourself checks,” Stapleton said, “but money doesn’t always equal people and votes.”

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