- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte has repeatedly challenged Gov. Steve Bullock to join him in refusing money from political action committees.

But Gianforte’s no-PAC pledge came under question when he and Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines headlined a fundraiser held Thursday in Washington, D.C., for the Montana Republican Party.

The fundraiser invited PACs to the event with a suggested admission price of $1,000.

“This is not a violation of the pledge, but it’s certainly throws open into question his commitment to not let campaigns be influenced by PAC money,” said Carroll College political scientist Jeremy Johnson.

Robert Saldin, a political science professor at the University of Montana, agreed.

“If you’re going to take this moral high ground against PAC money and call upon your opponent to do the same, it does raise the question of why he’s going to D.C. to help the state party raise PAC money,” Saldin said.

Amid the questions, a spokesman for Gianforte said the campaign has not taken money from the state GOP and would not do so.

Records filed with the Commissioner of Political Practices show that the Carbon County Republicans donated $1,000 on Sept. 17 and another $200 on Nov. 23 to the Gianforte campaign. That money was returned to the committee on Jan. 27, according to campaign records.

While Gianforte has pledged not to accept money from political action committees, he had not specifically sworn off money from party committees - at least not until The Associated Press began asking questions about Thursday’s GOP fundraiser.

On Thursday, the Gianforte campaign said it would decline money from the state GOP to avoid any appearance that PAC money could be funneled into the campaign through contributions from Republican Party committees.

“In order to avoid that issue, we are not taking money from the state party, from Republican central committees. … We’re not planning to take any money from the Republican Party,” said Ron Catlett, a spokesman for the Gianforte campaign.

Catlett said it is not unusual for a GOP candidate to attend a party event. The event is being held at Bobby Van’s Grill, a steakhouse just across the street from the offices of the Democratic Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

One day before announcing his candidacy for governor in January, Gianforte strode into the state Capitol to challenge Bullock to refuse PAC money.

Ever since, the Gianforte campaign has hammered Bullock for not accepting the challenge.

Last week, Republicans raised questions about a Big Sky fundraiser hosted by Bullock on behalf of the Democratic Governors Association and a nonprofit called the Center for Innovative Policy. The Gianforte campaign asserted that the event was a dark-money fundraiser, an allegation Democrats denied.

“Any money raised from the event will be disclosed,” said DGA spokesman Jared Leopold. He said none of the money raised would go to the nonprofit center.

Bullock has dismissed Gianforte’s no-PAC challenge as “disingenuous and silly.” He noted that Gianforte, a multimillionaire, could dip into his personal wealth to self-finance his campaign.

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