HELENA (AP) — Republican Rick Hill says he has no regrets about his two-year campaign for governor that ended in a loss to Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock.
Hill, who lost to Bullock by less than two percentage points, said he always considered himself the underdog because he had been out of politics for more than a decade after serving two-terms in Congress.
Republicans had high hopes for Hill's campaign, believing the opportunity was ripe for the GOP to take back the governor's office. But the party came up short in the election's two biggest prizes when Hill lost his bid for the open seat, and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg fell far short of taking down incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.
Hill, in an interview with The Associated Press last week before he left for vacation, tipped his hat to the strategy employed by Democrats. Rehberg has not responded to requests to be interviewed about the election.
Hill emerged from a rough and crowded primary with a polished campaign message — but with empty coffers.
Looking back, Hill said, Democrats effectively portrayed him as an advocate of a sales tax even though he hasn't backed such a position in years. Hill believes that, along with other attacks by third-party campaigns, helped decrease Republican turnout. The Democrats, Hill said, did a good job of driving the campaign messaging.
"I had a real agenda for job creation, but we never got to the point where we were successfully talking about that," Hill said. "I think in the end, I have to give them credit. The Democrats wanted to avoid us talking about those things, and they did."
The race ended with a dramatic court battle over a $500,000 donation the Republican Party gave to Hill during a brief window of time in which a judge had struck the state's contribution limits. A state judge ruled the Hill donation was likely illegal based on Bullock's argument that the limits, reinstated by an appeals court, were cumulative over the entire campaign cycle.
Hill said he still disagrees with that finding, and believes a court order that shut down advertising and other campaign activities for six of the final 14 days also contributed to his loss.
"I am absolutely convinced we didn't do anything wrong," Hill said.
The lawsuit is still unresolved and a final ruling on the matter has yet to be issued.
"The case is currently pending, but lawyers from both sides have had preliminary conversations about resolving the matter," said Bullock spokesman Kevin O'Brien.
During his campaign and time in the attorney general's office, Bullock called for a crackdown on third-party political spending and to fight legal challenges to state campaign finance laws. Bullock has said he will continue that effort as governor.
Hill said he also thinks there needs to be some reform on money in politics. But he argues contribution limits to candidates need to be increased so that third-party groups with unlimited access to money will be not be able to dominate the political agenda.
"It is not a balanced playing field right now, and it has to be balanced for everyone," Hill said.
But a bigger factor in his loss, Hill said, was the way Democrats unfairly framed him as a sales tax advocate and portrayed him as a Washington D.C. insider even though he only spent four years in Congress back in the 1990s.
Democrats argue the attack was fair, pointing to Hill's own comments that he had often in his career advocated a sales tax as a substitute tax.
The Republican said the Democrats' strategy, led by third-party groups, effectively derailed him from his plan to talk about a detailed agenda for the state and overshadowed his superior debate performances.
"I think I won the debates. And I think I won them by a fair margin. I think the debates are what kept us in the race," Hill said.
Hill said the tough primary also made it difficult to gather the base, a schism that was exploited by a Libertarian candidate who got 4 percent of the vote and possibly helped Bullock with his win.
"I believe I had a reason for running. I enjoyed every minute of it," Hill said. "I have no regrets. I have no regrets whatsoever."
Hill said he is proud of the campaign he ran — but after the long campaign he is not ready to jump back into the political arena. The 65-year-old Republican said he has already turned his attention back to his Helena-area real estate investments and spending time with family.
"The last thing I am going to be thinking about right now is another political run," Hill said. "Right now, I am spending some time in reflection. I am going to spend time with my family and grandkids. I am going to enjoy life."