Politics

Montana Candidate’s Comments Raise Questions About Corporate Money

Gianforte and Quist both claim they refuse industry PAC contributions

Republican Greg Gianforte, left, is running against Democrat Rob Quist in a special election to fill the at-large Montana congressional seat vacated by former Rep. Ryan Zinke, who’s now serving as secretary of the Interior.

Comments made by Montana Republican Greg Gianforte on a national fundraising call last week raise questions about what he meant when he said that industry PACs could contribute to “our Victory Fund.”

Both Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist say they have refused to accept corporate PAC money in the race for Montana’s at-large House seat. But when asked on last week’s call, audio of which was obtained by CQ Roll Call, whether he still did not accept PAC money, Gianforte gave a confusing answer. 

“We do not accept any industry PAC money, although if someone wanted to support through a PAC our Victory Fund allows that money to go to all the get-out-the-vote efforts,” he said.

Gianforte went on.

“And the reason for that is I came off the governor’s race last year having made a big deal about not taking any PAC money, and it would be a self-inflicted wound. We are starting to lessen that by taking political PAC money. That’s why we took the leadership PAC money from members in the House but not industry PAC money directly to the campaign,” Gianforte said.

Victory Fund?

But it’s not clear what Gianforte meant when he said “our Victory Fund.”

Like many candidates, including Quist, Gianforte has what is known as a joint fundraising committee. It’s called the Gianforte Victory Fund. Money it receives is shared with the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Montana Republican State Central Committee.

Under a joint fundraising agreement, multiple candidates, PACs or party committees can join together to “share the costs of fundraising, and split the proceeds,” according to OpenSecrets.

They’re like “one-stop shopping,” said election lawyer Michael Toner, a former chairman of the FEC, because they allow donors to contribute in one place.

But the Gianforte campaign said Thursday that he was referring to the Republican Party, not that joint fundraising agreement, on the call and therefore wasn’t compromising his pledge not to accept corporate PAC money.

“Greg was simply stating that they can support the party if they want. (that's what he meant by ‘victory fund’ — not the JFA.) It was a confusing choice of words,” a spokesman for the campaign said in an email, suggesting that “victory” has sometimes been synonymous with the party.

The spokesman said Gianforte has always been clear that he won’t accept corporate PAC money.

Gianforte’s campaign says that both its campaign committee and its joint fundraising committee are only accepting money from political party and leadership PACs.

Quist has said he won’t take corporate PAC money but will accept labor and ideological PAC money. The Quist campaign confirmed Thursday that Quist’s pledge applies to the Quist Victory Fund, too, which he shares with the Montana Democratic Party. 

Neither campaign’s joint victory funds have filed their first reports with the Federal Election Commission.

PAC attacks

The PAC pledge has long been a source of political attacks in Montana. During last year’s gubernatorial campaign, Gianforte knocked Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock for not accepting his pledge not to take PAC money. Democrats dismissed the pledge since Gianforte was able to kick $6 million of his own money into his campaign.

When Gianforte headlined a fundraiser for the state GOP in Washington, D.C., last year, he faced questions about whether he’d be violating his pledge by helping the state party raise money from PACs. In order to avoid that appearance, his campaign told the Associated Press it wouldn’t accept money from the state party.

“We’re not planning to take any more money from the Republican party,” Gianforte’s gubernatorial campaign spokesman told the AP in March of last year.

In this year’s House race, both sides have been quick to try to capitalize on the other’s money issues. During a recent debate, Quist attacked Gianforte for having financial ties to Russian businesses, including those that are on the U.S. sanctions list. Gianforte’s wealth has been a frequent source of attack, with Democrats trying to brand him as a millionaire from New Jersey.

But Quist’s personal financial troubles have also been fodder for Republicans. Major outside GOP groups have attacked him for trouble paying his taxes. Congressional Leadership, the super PAC backed by GOP leadership, released a new ad Thursday using Quist’s financial issues to question his credibility and readiness to serve.

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