- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 31, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Outside, independent groups have long been expected to pour money into a three-way race for an open seat on the Montana Supreme Court, but that money has yet to materialize as the June 7 primary approaches. Even so, lots of cash is already being raised and spent by the candidates themselves.

District Judge Dirk Sandefur, widely considered as the establishment candidate, has raised a record amount of money for the primary - amassing $248,000 in contributions thus far, according to campaign finance records filed with the Commissioner of Political Practices. He has spent $116,000 of that money, leaving him with more than $131,000 in his war chest should he advance to November’s general election.

His two opponents, University of Montana law professor Kristen Juras and Great Falls attorney Eric Mills, haven’t kept up. Juras has raised $94,000 thus far and has nearly $28,000 left in the bank. Mills gave his campaign $300, the only amount he has raised since declaring his longshot candidacy three months ago.

“This is one of the faster paces of fundraising by judicial candidates in recent Montana history,” said Anthony Johnstone, a University of Montana law professor who says the role of money in Montana’s judicial campaigns is startling but part of a new norm.

The concern, he said, is that the influence of money could end up influencing a judge’s perspective in deciding cases. “At the very least, it would influence each candidate’s prospect of getting elected.”

The top two vote-getters in next Tuesday’s balloting advance to the general election.

Sandefur has been busy stockpiling cash in anticipation of outside money pouring into the race. “We need to be prepared for that reality,” he said.

Sandefur and Juras have spent their money on newspaper ads, radio and television spots, mailers and social media. They have been making the rounds trying to persuade voters that the court needs someone with her background and point of view.

Sandefur has touted his deep experience on the bench and his former career as a police officer, while Juras has pushed her decades of experience representing farmers, ranchers and business interests.

Both expect independent campaign committees to pour money into the contest, although it remains to be seen when and how much.

 ”I suspect if it does, they will wait until after the primary election,” Juras said.

Outside groups have long influenced judicial races across the country, including millions of dollars already spent this year on races in Arkansas, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, in particular, has spent millions in recent years to influence judicial contests. In 2014, the committee spent $3.4 million across five states, including Montana.

Two years ago, outside groups spent nearly $1.4 million to influence the Montana race between Justice Mike Wheat and challenger Lawrence VanDyke. Wheat won, and the outside groups supported VanDyke.

In 2012, the Montana Growth Network, a politically conservative nonprofit, spent thousands of dollars in support of the successful Supreme Court campaign of Laurie McKinnon.

The Republican State Leadership Committee has already registered two political committees with the Commissioner of Political Practices, but neither has yet to raise substantial amounts of money and neither has spent any money on candidates.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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