HELENA — The Montana Republican Party helped finance the effort to qualify the Green Party for Montana’s 2020 elections, paying $100,000 to groups that hired or financed mostly out-of-state signature-gathers, MTN News has learned.
The party confirmed Tuesday that it was behind the effort, but had reported late last month, on documents filed with the Federal Election Commission, that it made an initial $50,000 payment in January to the Texas company that hired signature-gatherers.
Montana Republican Party Executive Director Spenser Merwin told MTN News in a statement that the GOP wanted to “provide more choice for Montanans this November,” and noted that state Democrats have worked to “limit ballot access” to minor political parties.
The Montana Democratic Party on Tuesday called the effort “election fraud” and said Republicans engineered the effort to drain votes from Democrats this November and thus make it easier for their statewide candidates to win.
“The Montana GOP is so scared that (U.S. Sen.) Steve Daines and (gubernatorial candidate) Greg Gianforte can’t win a fair election that they’ve resorted to election fraud,” said Sandi Luckey, executive director of the Democratic Party. “The Montana secretary of state must immediately disqualify this fraudulent effort.”
Two years ago, the Montana Democratic Party successfully sued to remove the Green Party from the 2018 ballot, after it had been qualified with the help of out-of-state signature-gatherers.
Merwin said the Republican Party followed state and federal laws, and noted that groups supporting U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in his 2012 re-election surreptitiously spent half-a-million dollars promoting a Libertarian Party candidate in the final days of the campaign.
In that race, the Libertarian candidate won 6.5 percent of the vote and Tester won the election over Republican Denny Rehberg, 48.5 percent to 45 percent.
In Montana, to qualify for the 2020 ballot and have candidates, a “minor party” had to file petitions with the signatures of at least 5,000 registered voters before the March 9 deadline for candidate filing.
Starting in late January, people gathering signatures to qualify the Green Party showed up in five Montana cities – Billings, Bozeman, Helena, Missoula and Butte – and eventually turned in 12,000 signatures.
On March 6, the Friday before the candidate-filing deadline, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton determined that enough signatures had been verified to qualify the Green Party for the ballot. Within hours, Green Party candidates began filing, to run in several statewide offices, including Montana’s high-profile U.S. Senate race.
Yet the Montana Green Party, through its Facebook page, said it had nothing to do with the petition drive and called it a “Republican and conservative effort” to create “false” Green Party candidates, apparently to draw votes away from Democrats.
According to records filed with county election offices, the petition circulators included Chuck Denowh, a Helena political and public-affairs consultant who works with Republican candidates and other clients.
Denowh told MTN News Monday that he’d been involved with the effort, which was financed through the recently formed group Montanans for Conservation. Money from the state Republican Party, eventually funneled through Montanans for Conservation, was paid to a Texas firm that hired the signature-gatherers, he said.
In a document obtained by MTN News, Montanans for Conservation told the state commissioner of political practices Tuesday that the state Republican Party contracted with the Texas company and had made a $100,000 contribution to Montanans for Conservation to cover the cost.
Last week, the Montana Democratic Party filed a complaint with the commissioner against the Texas firm, Advanced Micro Targeting, claiming the firm had violated state law by not filing reports outlining its spending on the Green Party qualification effort.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan told MTN News Tuesday that his office is evaluating that complaint, in light of new information it received this week on financing of the signature-gathering.
Montanans for Conservation said it filed in January as a "minor party qualification committee," but had been misclassifed by Mangan's office as an “independent committee.” Mangan said the group contacted him late Monday to note that it should be listed as a minor party qualification committee, and would be reporting its spending next month.
Denowh said Montanans for Conservation filed initially had been listed as an independent committee because Mangan’s office hadn’t yet updated its filing procedures to reflect a 2019 state law that created the “minor party qualification committee.”
Montanans for Conservation’s first report of its 2020 spending and donors isn’t due at the Office of Political Practices until April 15.
Records filed with county election offices show that about 20 of people worked in Bozeman, Missoula, Helena, Butte and Billings to gather signatures to qualify the Green Party for the ballot.
A few listed Montana addresses, but most were from out of state, including people from Texas, California, Florida, New Jersey, Maryland, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Alaska.