When Montana Gov. Steve Bullock hit the switch on his sleek new presidential campaign machine in the early-morning hours of May 14, he joined a crowded field of Democratic candidates historic for its depth and diversity — a roiling primary pool that had been swelling for months, and which was already approaching full froth by the time Bullock made his splash.
In becoming the first Montanan to run for president as a major party candidate, Bullock is big news in the Treasure State, where the two-term governor is popular among swing voters and well regarded in both progressive spheres and by moderate Republicans. Beyond Montana’s borders, however, Bullock isn’t quite so familiar, and as he jumps into the race as a late entrant it’s the ripples of his splash he hopes will propagate his message rather than the splash itself.
The most obvious questions surrounding Bullock’s decision have been gestating ever since he won re-election in 2016, notching a rare Democratic victory in a Republican-leaning state that overwhelmingly supported President Donald Trump, and prompting immediate speculation about a presidential bid.
Bullock laid that speculation to rest the moment he charged out of the gate last week and released a YouTube video slugged “A Fair Shot for Everyone,” in which he ticks through an impressive list of accomplishments as governor, which he achieved while working under a Republican-dominated legislature, as well as during his tenure as the state’s attorney general.
“As a democratic governor of a state that Trump won by 20 points, I don’t have the luxury of just talking to people who agree with me,” Bullock says in the campaign video. “I go all across our state’s 147,000 square miles. I look for common ground to get things done. That’s how I was able to bring Democrats and Republicans together to fight dark money and pass one of the strongest campaign finance laws in the country.”
It’s a simple, straightforward campaign message that Bullock and his team have been crafting for months, but it’s also a platform that Bullock appears to genuinely believe will improve the country — take the money out of politics, reprogram transparency in the federal government, reduce corruption, build unity, and improve representation for the people. That’s not a divisive message, Bullock says, and one that ought to appeal to anyone who feels left behind by the economy.
In order for that message to take root, however, Bullock has begun jostling for position in a come-from-behind horse race by breaking away from a pack that includes roughly two-dozen primary candidates, a mix of household names — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren — as well as rising stars that have already emerged as darlings in the progressive universe — Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg.
The candidates are all vying for money and recognition, and with a month before the first primary debates there are only so many of them who can fit on a stage. To sort through the chaos, the Democratic National Committee has put rules in place based on polling and donor criteria that cap the number of candidates at 20.
That roster was nearly full by the time Bullock, 53, sat down in his sparse campaign headquarters near downtown Helena to field questions from Montana reporters on the morning of his announcement, and the gentle interrogation immediately turned to practical matters.
“Governor, don’t take this the wrong way,” began one reporter, belying some of the punditry that has pegged Bullock as a candidate better suited for a U.S. Senate race than for President of the United States. “How much of a long shot do you think you are in this race?”
Opening with a chuckle, Bullock took a crack at a question that would be asked ad nauseam as the day rolled on.
“This isn’t for me a vanity project. I wouldn’t be getting into it if I didn’t think I had something really significant to offer,” he said. “And from that perspective I am the only one in the field that has done the work on the corrupting influence of outside money, which I think we do have to address. I’m the only one that has bridged some of the divides to actually make government work. I am off the Coasts, which in many respects is a good thing. I think there are 37 or 23 or however many other folks running, and all of them offer something. And I have something significant to offer.”
“A lot of people are saying they wish you were running for Senate,” began another question, referring to a potential 2020 Democratic challenge to Montana’s Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines.
“I think we are going to have a lot of good candidates to take on Sen. Daines,” Bullock said. “My experience in public office has always been on the executive side. Even two years ago I said I’m not interested in running for Senate. That is not to take anything away from them, but I think I have a lot to offer here.”
“Who are you leaving in charge of state government while you campaign?” another reporter asked.
“Me,” Bullock said. “This has been a job when I have never just been able to clock out. Last summer, I spent six nights on the South Fork Flathead River in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I was on a satellite phone and email every single day. You can’t leave the daily demands of this job even if you want to. I expect to be actively daily engaged in the issues that come up in my office and all of the agencies just like I have in the last six-and-a-half years.”
Those polished responses continued to serve Bullock throughout the day as he navigated a schedule brimming with interviews and appearances before gaggles of camera crews that trailed him from a scripted event inside a science classroom at Helena High School — where the governor and his wife, Lisa, attended school, and where the couple’s three children attend school — to a stop at Ten Mile Brewery on Last Chance Gulch.
As the first Montanan to ever run for presidency as a mainstream candidate, there’s no tried-and-true playbook for a governor from a state whose politics have never played by the rules. Moreover, Bullock’s talents are on the most prominent display when he’s embedded in the business of enacting policies that make a difference in people’s lives, particularly when it’s a business conducted amid the clamor of a GOP-dominated Legislature. Those talents shine less brightly from within the narrow constraints of a sound byte, which is not to say that Bullock didn’t trot out a few originals during his debut on the national media stage.
“I literally signed my last bill yesterday,” Bullock told a reporter from CNN when asked about the late entry. “I know I’m not the first to enter the race but I had a job to do.”
The governor’s emphasis on the way in which he’s done that job grew increasingly bold as he touted a progressive record on Medicaid expansion, education spending, campaign finance reform, net neutrality, marriage equality, women’s health rights, and conservation and climate as evidence of a phenomenon that’s not a secret in Montana — a Democrat does not have to masquerade as a Republican here to be successful or appeal to voters in what is often billed as a red state, and many of his key measures have come to fruition because he joined forces with moderate Republicans in the state’s GOP-dominated legislature.
But that secret isn’t necessarily out in other corners of a country that’s increasingly polarized and riven by bitter political divisions, a trend that Bullock said had him contemplating an early conclusion to his career in public service.
“Candidly, going into the ‘16 election my family and I said ‘we’ll finish up as governor and then we’re done.’ A dozen years in the public eye and raising kids is not without some challenges,” Bullock said when asked about the moment he decided to run for president. “After that election, I was asked to start traveling quite a bit because I was the only Democrat to get reelected in a state that Trump won. When I would say outside Montana that, ‘yeah 25-to-30 percent of my voters voted for Donald Trump,’ far too often you would hear either, ‘what’s wrong with those voters?’ or a little skepticism, like, ‘what’s wrong with you Bullock? You wouldn’t ever hear, like, ‘how is it that people were voting their economic interests, their hopes for their kids, their hopes for health care, and they voted with a Democrat? So that got me thinking that I have something to add to this.”
In the hierarchy of bills that Bullock has brokered along with state Republicans, none other than Medicaid expansion are as defining to him as his efforts to fight dark money in politics, a record that began during his tenure as Attorney General and culminated four years ago with the Disclose Act, a measure the 2015 Montana Legislature narrowly passed by a single Republican vote.
As Attorney General, Bullock led the effort to preserve Montana’s century-old Corrupt Practices Act, taking the case for the state’s citizen democracy all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. As governor, he signed a first-of-its kind executive order requiring the recipients of major government contracts to disclose dark money spending in elections. Under the order, government contractors who have spent more than $2,500 in the past two years in elections will be required to disclose their donations.
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court left intact the state’s campaign contribution limits, rejecting a challenge that would have removed those side rails, and in March he supported legislation to ban spending and contributions in state elections by foreign governments, foreign corporations and foreign nationals.
Voters can expect to hear a lot about Bullock’s work to eliminate dark money in politics in the coming months, but it’s because he’s proud of the record and believes it speaks to his acuity at narrowing political gulfs in order to usher critical legislation through divided political channels.
“Nobody thought getting the Disclose Act passed was possible,” Bullock said of the legislation that broadened the scope of campaign reporting and increased the transparency of outside spending groups. “Now, if you’re a state contractor, you have to disclose all the ways you have contributed money in order to influence our elections, and companies have been following that in Montana. Think if you did that in the federal government? The federal government contracts with probably dang near every company in our country. And with laws like this in place they will either have to stop those expenditures or at least we’ll know who is buying the elections. Across the country I think there’s more commonality than you might think, because that’s certainly what we saw right here.”
He’s also spoken fervently about the urgency of climate change and the need to invest in energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly given the Trump administration’s record of rolling back standards and withdrawing from the Paris Agreement.
“We have to address climate change,” he said, telling reporters that Montana has ramped up solar energy by 400 percent and seen wind energy increase by 200 percent under his leadership. “We would be that much better if our federal government was fundamentally addressing climate change.”
After a pause, he turned to face a gaggle of national news reporters — “While you’re here visit Glacier National Park. You wait four or five more years and there won’t be any glaciers. We need to invest in technology. If we decide we are not even going to play anymore by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, we are never going to meet the targets that we need to hand off this great country and our great world to the next generation.”
The day after announcing his candidacy for president, Bullock headed to Iowa for his seventh trip to the Hawkeye Stake, but it was his first as a presidential contender. He immediately nabbed an endorsement from longtime Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, first elected to the position in 1978. As the longest-serving attorney general in the nation’s history, Miller is widely regarded as one of the state’s most influential Democrats.
In making the endorsement, Miller described Bullock as having “proven character, a record of success and an ability to connect with Americans.” Bullock is also well regarded in Iowa political circles and, with Miller’s support, is making early inroads in a state that places a key role in the selection of presidential candidates.
To ease his transition into the frenzied campaign season, Bullock has assembled a team of high-ticket campaign advisers and political operatives as part of his political committee, the Big Sky Values PAC, including Jenn Ridder as campaign manager; Megan Simpson as state director in Iowa; Jeremy Busch as Iowa press secretary; and Galia Slayen as communications director.
Bullock said he’s optimistic that he’ll meet polling or fundraising criteria to qualify for the first round of debates, and several national news organizations already reported that he’s passed that threshold. He raised $1 million in the 24 hours following the announcement of his candidacy, a frequent metric in gauging the early success of a candidate. It’s a robust figure, but he’ll need a lot more.
“This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” Bullock, an avid runner who has completed numerous marathons, has said on multiple occasions.
With his sights set on the ultimate prize, Bullock said he hopes to at least gain enough purchase in the race to influence the Democratic message as the din reaches a roar in the weeks leading up to the first debates.
Either way, he vowed to connect with people one way or another, be it with a handshake or from a national stage.
“People are going to hear my message,” Bullock said. “I have no idea what these debates will look like. I certainly hope I qualify because I think I have a message that people need to hear. And I will be promoting that message through all kinds of different outlets.”
“This is the fight of our time,” he said.