By Bobby Caina Calvan Associated Press

HELENA (AP) – Gov. Steve Bullock and Republican challenger Greg Gianforte brought in a total of more than $3.8 million in campaign contributions through last week’s primary—already nearly as much as the $3.9 million Bullock and Republican Rick Hill collected during the entire 2012 gubernatorial campaign.

By some accounts, this year’s race could become the state’s most expensive gubernatorial contest, eclipsing the spirited and expensive campaign four years ago.

“This type of money was just not raised and spent in Montana,” said Jeremy Johnson, a Carroll College political science professor.

So far, Gianforte has raised more than $2 million, including $486,000 in personal contributions and loans. The Bozeman businessman is making his first bid for public office and has spent nearly $1.2 million to introduce himself to voters, including hundreds of thousands of dollars for a barrage of television ads.

Bullock has amassed more than $1.8 million and has nearly $1.3 million left to finance his re-election.

In all, nearly $5.2 million was spent by all the candidates vying for the governor’s mansion in 2012, including an expensive and hotly contested Republican primary.

“It is truly a monetarily competitive race,” said Denise Roth Barber, managing director for the National Institute on Money in State Politics, based in Helena.

“Given that Gianforte himself can afford to put a fair amount of money into his campaign, there’s the belief by the Bullock campaign that they need to counter that with raising a fair amount of money themselves.”

Still unclear is the role of outside money in the race. Cash from independent campaign committees has been flowing briskly on behalf of Bullock and Gianforte, even though neither faced serious competition during the June 7 primary.

“Since this is such a competitive race, we expect to see a fair amount of outside money being spent, and we want to make sure that we know who’s behind this money that’s being spent,” Barber said.

Good Jobs Montana, which is bankrolled by the Democratic Governors Association, has spent more than $622,000, much of it on attack ads against Gianforte after the Republican Governors Association began airing spots critical of Bullock.

The DGA has given Bullock’s campaign $1,320 in direct contributions, but has funneled thousands of dollars more through the Montana Democratic Party.

“Gov. Bullock has a strong record on fiscal responsibility, on job creation, and has Montana’s unemployment well below the national average. And I think he is in a strong position for re-election,” said Jared Leopold, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association, a group Bullock led last year.

The Republican association has also has spent big on the race, but has not disclosed the amount directly with the Commissioner of Political Practices. As a federal committee, the GOP association files campaign statements with the Federal Election Commission. It confirmed $500,000 in spending on Gianforte’s behalf.

“We don’t invest in lost causes,” said Jon Thompson, spokesman for the Republican Governors Association. “If you see the RGA investing in a race, it’s because we believe it’s very close, and we believe it’s very competitive.”

In 2012, Independent committees, which aren’t supposed to coordinate with the campaigns they support, spent nearly $4.2 million—nearly $3.7 million of that spending to help derail Hill’s candidacy, according to records compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

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