- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 2, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana’s copper barons bought and sold public office like any commodity a century ago. That legacy looms large in what could become the most expensive governor’s race in state history.

The race pits a wealthy businessman against a well-connected incumbent governor with well-heeled friends. The Montana election also is expected to get national attention, generating outside groups’ interest - and money.

Rick Aarstad, a senior historian at the Montana Historical Society, doesn’t think times have changed much since the era of the Copper Kings. There is no longer the blatant vote-buying that was rampant in those days, he acknowledged, but money is once again playing an oversized role in today’s politics.

“It’s beginning to look like the gilded age of the 1890s,” Aarstad said. “Whoever had the biggest war chest would win the election.”

Gov. Steve Bullock won the 2012 election in a race that combined for $5.2 million in spending. By some accounts, this year’s race could nearly double that amount.

Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Nancy Keenan predicted $9 million in direct contributions to Bullock and his likely Republican opponent, Bozeman entrepreneur Greg Gianforte. She based that on Bullock’s fundraising prowess, the personal fortune of Gianforte, who sold his company, RightNow Technologies, to Oracle for $1.8 billion and the national attention the race will receive.

Money from political action committees and so-called dark money from politically motivated nonprofits also is expected to pour in. Gianforte put a spotlight on the role of outside money when he announced his bid for governor last month by pledging to refuse PAC money.

“Our pledge is very clear: Our campaign is not going to accept any special interest money. We’ve called on Gov. Bullock to do the same,” Gianforte said.

Since forming his exploratory committee last summer, Gianforte has raised more than $570,000 as of the end of 2015, none of it from PACS, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state. Bullock has amassed $1.2 million in donations since 2014 - only $68,214 from self-identified political action committees.

The governor scoffed at the PAC challenge coming from a candidate who could self-fund a multimillion dollar campaign.

“It’s disingenuous and silly,” Bullock said. “If he wants to say he’ll limit the expenditures that he makes funneling his own wealth into the campaign to $1,300, then we’ll have that discussion.”

Bullock was referring to the limits imposed by state law on contributions from individuals donating to a gubernatorial campaign.

No law prevents Gianforte from dipping into his personal fortune. According to tax returns Gianforte voluntarily released, he reported income of $220.5 million between 2005 and 2014.

Gianforte’s pledge does nothing to stop outside money from aiding his campaign with independent expenditures by political committees or nonprofits, said Robert Saldin, a political science professor at the University of Montana.

“This does not necessarily mean others can’t put up ads supporting Gianforte,” Saldin noted.

Gianforte sidestepped questions about whether he would call on outside groups to refrain from spending funds on his behalf, saying his pledge referred only to his campaign.

Democrats point out that Gianforte is already benefiting from outside groups, including AegisPAC, a group with ties to the billionaire Koch brothers and that is helping Gianforte drum up support. The Democratic Governors Association, which Bullock chaired in 2015, will no doubt try and dig deep for one its own.

It’s that independent spending by outside groups, not direct campaign contributions by PACs, which should be watched closely, said Jonathan Motl, the state’s commissioner of political practices.

“That’s the arena Montanans should be keeping an eye on when it comes to this 2016 gubernatorial race,” he said. “Both sides, Republican and Democrat, are going to have substantial independent expenditures.”

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This story has been updated to correct the amount Gianforte has raised to $570,000.

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