- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 26, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The Montana Supreme Court race could soon set a fundraising record, as new reports show a state political party has contributed to the nonpartisan race for the first time in decades.

District Judge Dirk Sandefur and former University of Montana law professor Kristen Juras are competing for a Supreme Court seat to replace a retiring justice. Campaign finance reports filed Monday show funding raised by the candidates or from groups spending to influence the race is just under the $1.6 million record set in 2014.

The reports also say the Montana Democratic Party has spent more than $60,000 in advertising to support Sandefur, Lee Newspapers of Montana reported.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said this is the first time he can recall there being any state party expenditures on a Supreme Court race, although a national GOP organization contributed heavily in 2014.

Juras condemned the party’s contribution, saying Democrats are politicizing the race.

“It shows that the Democrats believe Sandefur has a partisan agenda that he plans to bring to the court,” Juras said in a statement. “The Democratic Party’s insertion into this race threatens the ability of state judges to act independently and impartially. Montana’s highest court needs balance and experience - not partisan politics like those Sandefur plans to bring.”

Sandefur denied that he would be influenced by the party’s support and shot back at Juras with similar claims.

“Unlike my opponent who has chosen to run as an extremist, special-interest ideologue, I am and always have been a nonpartisan candidate. My record reflects that. My fundraising efforts reflect that,” Sandefur said. “All I can do is put my name on the ballot, go out and make the best case I can to all Montanans based on my experience and nonpartisan record. That’s what I’ve done. The rest of this is beyond my control.”

With two weeks still left in the Supreme Court race, the candidates are likely to break the 2014 fundraising record. Special interest groups spent record amounts that year due to loosened campaign finance laws in the race between incumbent Justice Mike Wheat and former solicitor general Lawrence VanDyke.

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