Steve Bullock is the kind of Democrat who can be governor of conservative Montana — a state that Donald Trump won by 20 points. He’s making a long-shot bet that kind of Democrat can also be president of the United States.
Having just finished Montana’s state legislative session, Bullock has now officially turned his attention to running for president, announcing his candidacy Tuesday with a YouTube video.
In a politically polarized time, Bullock is running on his track record of working with Montana’s Republican-controlled legislature to get things accomplished that the deadlocked US Congress could only dream of: passing an infrastructure plan, Medicaid expansion, and a campaign finance reform bill.
“Nearly every single proposal I asked the legislature to take seriously arrived at my desk,” Bullock wrote in a recent Medium post at the end of the state’s legislative session. “Even in the face of Washington DC’s partisan gridlock, we in Montana can still be a shining example of how our political system is supposed to work.”
And Bullock is leaning in on the issue of campaign finance reform, highlighting his efforts to beef up state election laws and increase transparency requirements for dark money groups.
“We need to defeat Donald Trump in 2020 and defeat the corrupt system that lets campaign money drown out the people’s voice, so we can finally make good on the promise of a fair shot for everyone,” Bullock said in his announcement video.
National Democrats want Bullock to set his sights on the US Senate rather than the White House. They believe Bullock is their best chance to defeat Sen. Steve Daines (R), who is up for reelection in 2020 — but he’s shown absolutely no interest in chasing the Senate seat. He’s now the third current or former governor in the race for president, alongside former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
“I think it’s going to be a tough sell because he is another white guy running for the Democratic nomination that not a lot of people know,” said Lee Banville, a journalism professor and political analyst at the University of Montana. “That’s going to be his struggle; how is he different from the other governor from out here with the same appeal but a weirder name?”
Bullock’s sales pitch: pragmatic progressivism
In a primary where the loudest voices are often hewing to the left, Bullock wants to bring America back to the center. It’s here, he says, that progress on policies like freezing in-state college tuition, passing affordable health care, and investing in infrastructure can actually happen — based on what he and Montana Republicans have gotten done.
“He governed successfully and governed well,” said David Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University. “Unlike any other Democratic candidate, he’s done so in a fairly red state. The closest would be Hickenlooper, but Colorado’s more of a Democratic state.”
Bullock’s track record on these issues has been fairly successful, but he’s also had a Republican-controlled state legislature willing to work with him — something that would be far from guaranteed if he became president.
One achievement the governor often touts, for example, is a 2015 campaign finance reform law that requires political groups to disclose their donors and spending on campaign ads. Then in 2018, Bullock signed an executive order targeting “dark money” groups and putting in more stringent transparency requirements for government contractors who spend during elections. That’s something House Democrats passed in their sweeping anti-corruption reforms package HR 1. But actually getting HR 1 to be a law has been much more difficult, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stopped it from getting anywhere in the Senate.
Bullock is far from the only 2020 with the message that bipartisanship produces results, but his campaign is hoping it will resonate in Iowa, which has a rural makeup similar to Montana’s and holds the nation’s first caucuses. While it’s uncertain whether Bullock can even make it onto the first DNC debate stage, he plans to build out the infrastructure and put in the effort meeting Iowa voters, and see if he can get any momentum off the ground.
“I think it’s going to be that personal connection, and it’s not going to be someone seeing him on TV,” Parker said. “He’s not going to blow people away like Pete Buttigieg. It’s going to be those connections on the ground.”
Why not the Senate?
National Democrats would dearly love Bullock to set aside his presidential ambitions and run for Senate instead, but the governor has so far shown no desire to do so.
Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines is up for reelection in 2020. A one-term senator, Daines has a decent 49 percent approval rating, per Morning Consult. He’ll certainly be a tough candidate to beat in conservative Montana, and Bullock is Democrats’ best shot to do so.
Numerous in-state polls show Bullock has the highest approval rating of any statewide elected official, including Daines and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. And although Daines has a decent approval rating, he faces a potential problem in that President Donald Trump’s approval rating has fallen dramatically in the state, according to Morning Consult’s tracking. At its highest point, Trump’s approval rating in Montana was 62 percent in April 2017. It’s since fallen to 45 percent as of this March, with 47 percent disapproval — according to a University of Montana Big Sky poll.
Trump’s approval rating may not be enough to drag down a Republican incumbent in Montana, but Bullock’s centrist image and high approval ratings make him the most sought-after candidate. There are few other available Democrats — Kathleen Williams, who challenged Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte in 2018 and lost, is running for the same House seat again.
The perception the Senate is stuck and not getting anything done has discouraged numerous Democrats from mounting a Senate campaign in 2020. Bullock, like other Democrats who have turned down Senate campaigns, seems to object to going from the position of state executive to being one cog in a machine that is frequently spinning its wheels.
He will try to run for president first. A lingering question is whether national Democrats continue to pursue him for the Senate race if that doesn’t work out, and if he will ever accept.