HELENA — Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill's campaign has had to freeze all media advertising, polling and travel since last Thursday to comply with a state judge's order not to spend a disputed $500,000 donation, campaign manager Brock Lowrance said Monday.
Lowrance testified as attorneys for Hill's opponent, Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock, asked District Judge Kathy Seeley to issue a preliminary injunction preventing Hill from spending the Montana Republican Party donation for the Nov. 6 election.
The sudden cash infusion was originally seen to be a boost to the former congressman's campaign as it entered the final stretch of a close race, but Lowrance testified that Seeley's temporary restraining order issued Thursday has had the opposite effect.
Seeley's temporary restraining order prevented Hill from spending the contribution until Monday's court hearing. But because the order was "overly broad," and that donation is not easily separated from other contributions, the campaign canceled nearly all expenditures and activities, Lowrance said.
"We're effectively dark on radio and television right now. Not effectively — we are," he said. "We did not want to violate, or even have the idea of violating the temporary restraining order."
That means no Hill advertisements have run on television, radio or the Internet since Thursday, with the exception of four television ads on Saturday that could not be recalled in time. In addition, the campaign has halted about $10,000 in polling, which Lowrance said is essential for campaign strategy in the last weeks of the election, and put a hold on a statewide get-out-the-vote tour scheduled this week.
Another $5,000 in vendor checks are on hold, other expenses are on hold and payroll is due in a couple of days, Lowrance said. The campaign is keeping in reserve a $100,000 personal loan from Hill made last week.
At issue is the legality of the $500,000 donation that Hill accepted two days after a federal judge ruled this month that state campaign contribution limits are unconstitutionally low. Hill argues that it was legal for him to take the GOP donation because of U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell's ruling, and he has spent most of it.
Bullock argues Hill must return the donation now that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked Lovell's order and reinstated the limits. Bullock says the limits prevent Hill from taking more than $22,600 from all political parties from the beginning to the end of the campaign, and so Hill is now violating state law by keeping the $500,000.
"It's not that they took the money, it's when the limits came into effect, they were over the aggregate limits," Bullock attorney Karl Englund said.
A $500,000 donation unexpectedly appearing in a statistically even race just a few weeks before the election could mean the difference in the election, testified political consultant and strategist Raymond Strother.
"It would be catastrophic for the person who's going to have $500,000 spent against him," Strother said.
Hill attorney Cory Swanson said state law prevents a campaign from receiving a donation above the limits, but there is no violation in keeping a donation that was legally made. That's the difference in this case, Swanson said, in which Hill accepted an above-the-limit donation when there were no limits.
Swanson asked Seeley to dismiss Bullock's lawsuit, saying the attorney general is trying to skirt the normal complaint procedure, which is to go through the state commissioner of political practices.
Bullock has filed a complaint with the commissioner, and Englund said the candidate also was within his rights to go to district court.
Seeley told Swanson she was not going to dismiss the lawsuit at that point.
Swanson said Bullock's lawsuit could result in additional lawsuits by political candidates looking to hamper their opponents' campaigns.
"If the court continues to entertain this lawsuit, I will be shocked if there aren't more lawsuits between now and Election Day," he said.