HELENA – For a time, Democrats ruled over the vast terrain that stretched from the Great Plains, across the Rocky Mountains and along the Pacific. From Texas and North Dakota, and from Oklahoma to Hawaii, a Democrat occupied all but two governors’ mansions in the 19 most-western states in the late 1970s.
But those states that once had long successions of Democratic governors — including Wyoming, Idaho and Utah — are now solidly Republican territory.
The shift puts Montana Gov. Steve Bullock in a rare spot in the political landscape: one of only three Democratic governors in a rural state. Across the United States, only 18 Democrats hold governorships — with eight of those seats among the 12 before voters this year.
There is a lot riding on Bullock’s re-election campaign against political newcomer Republican Greg Gianforte.
Some say the Democratic Party cannot afford to lose the governor’s race in Montana — not just to defend its dwindling number of governorships but to also prove that it can still engage with rural America. The party is also trying to hold on to two other rural states, Vermont and West Virginia.
“Politically, it’s important for Democrats to demonstrate that they can win in rural places,” said Dave Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University.
“They need to show that they can attract the allegiance of voters in rural areas to make them competitive, and demonstrate that they are not just reflective of the coasts and urban interests,” Parker said. “So Bullock is very symbolic because he is one of the few remaining Democrats representing a largely rural state.”
In 1978, all but two of the 19 states extending from the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean had Democratic governors. Today, only a third are headed by a Democrat. And among rural states in the Rockies and Great Plains, Bullock is the only remaining Democrat.
Montanans have had a long and deep affinity with the Democratic Party. Its first governor was a Democrat — and so were 15 of the state’s 24 governors since statehood. They also pride themselves for bucking expectations. While states around it have grown staunchly conservative, Montana’s streak of independence is alive and well.
“Montana is a fascinating state, not just for the gubernatorial race,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. “There’s an interesting dynamic, and it will be interesting to see how much cultural and social issues matter.”
The separation between federal and local partisanship used to be stronger, Gonzales said, allowing Democrats to win in culturally conservative states and Republicans in socially liberal ones.
But that line is blurring.
As a result, he said, “it could make it more difficult for a Democrat running in a rural state to build their own identity that is separate from the national party. It can be done, but it’s just becoming more difficult unless you have a strong profile.”
While Democrats have been able to count on voters of color — many concentrated in urbanized states — significant numbers of white rural voters have fled the party, said Tim Marema, vice president of the Kentucky-based Center for Rural Strategies.
“In places where there is a lot of land and few people, many white, rural voters have moved over time toward the Republican Party. Nationally, the Democratic Party thinks it doesn’t need rural voters as much as it used to, so they tend to ignore them,” Marema said.
But he warned that Republicans shouldn’t take the rural vote for granted.
For now, some handicappers say Democrats are likely to hold Montana — but much of that is because Gianforte is an unknown. The Bozeman businessman, a millionaire who made a fortune in the high-tech industry, is making his first run at public office.
Democrats have fared well in Montana mainly because of a strong labor history, growing urban areas and the independent streak among Montanans. It’s hard to find a Democrat in Montana who doesn’t believe in the right to own guns — Bullock among them.
And until last year, Bullock led the Democratic Governors Association, which has supported him with financial donations, fundraising and campaign strategy.
“There might be some national Democrats who are writing off these rural areas,” said Joe Lamson, a longtime Democratic operative in Montana. “But in the final analysis, there are still some folks in these areas in a pitch battle … and they’ve been in a pitch battle for a long, long time.”
If more states turn red, he said, it will get harder for Democrats to win nationally.
David Hunter, whose history with Montana Democrats spans five decades, cautions against putting too much meaning on the outcome of the governor’s race.
“Is it a bellwether for how Democrats will do in rural states? I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t think a Bullock victory or loss says anything about our ability as a party to connect (with rural voters) nationwide or even in Montana. I really think the governor’s race in Montana is a local race.”