- Associated Press - Monday, March 14, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and Republican Greg Gianforte will face challengers for their parties’ nominations in the June 7 primary elections, and a Democratic rival finally emerged for Attorney General Tim Fox.

Last-minute candidates scurried to meet the Monday deadline to file candidacy papers with the Secretary of State’s Office for the 2016 elections.

Among the late filers was Terry Nelson of Hamilton, who will run against Gianforte in the Republican gubernatorial primary. On the Democratic side, former Miles City legislator Bill McChesney filed Friday to run against Bullock.

Nelson said he had yet to begin raising money and acknowledged his candidacy faces long odds.

“I know it’s a long shot. But in this political time, it appears that just about anybody can run and have a shot,” said Nelson, who is the planning administrator for Ravalli County and chairs his county’s GOP Central Committee.

Bullock’s Democratic opponent said he has no illusions of winning, but his candidacy gives him a platform to talk about the role big money is playing in elections. He acknowledged that his entry lifts fundraising restrictions on the Bullock campaign.

Under state law, gubernatorial candidates can receive a maximum of $1,320 from an individual contributor - up to $660 per election. But if a candidate has no primary opponent, the total limit per contributor is reduced to $660, and any excess must be returned to the donor.

Nelson’s candidacy lifts similar restrictions of the Gianforte campaign.

Fox won’t be facing a primary challenge, and it is unclear how much money, if any, he will have to return to donors who have donated to both the primary and general elections.

Larry Jent, a former member of the state legislature from Bozeman, said his late entry puts him in at a financial disadvantage. He had been mulling a run for months, he said, but It took convincing by Democratic officials, including former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, to get him to run against Fox in November’s general election.

“Although I’m new to the job of running for AG - as in minutes - I’ve been around the block awhile,” Jent said. “I present a credible alternative for the Democratic Party.”

In an email sent by a spokesman, Fox said: “I believe Montanans will continue to support my record of improving public safety and pushing back against federal overreach.”

Party officials often recruit challengers for races they have little chance of winning. As a matter of principle, neither party wants a seat to go unopposed.

“Sometimes there is a hope to recruit. Sometimes there is not. For major races, there is certainly an incentive to find a sacrificial lamb,” said Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist at Carroll College. That partly explains why Democrats recruited Jent for attorney general, he said.

In what is expected to be another high-profile and potentially expensive judicial race, a third candidate - Great Falls attorney Eric Mills - joined District Judge Dirk Sandefur and law professor Kristen Juras in vying for a vacant seat on the state Supreme Court.

In all, 382 people filed papers to be on ballots in the June primary, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. Of those, 324 were for 100 House and 25 Senate seats in the state legislature.

The re-election campaign of Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, will be watched closely. He is accused of campaign finance violations by the Commissioner of Political Practices and is set to go to trial later this month. If convicted, he could be the first Montana elected official in about four decades to be expelled from office.

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