Shortly before Montana Gov. Steve Bullock took the debate stage in the Democratic presidential primary for the first time on July 30, news broke that he had emerged victorious in his dark-money lawsuit against the Trump administration. Then the governor stepped in front of a national audience and, for most voters outside of Montana, provided an initial introduction to his White House candidacy.
The general consensus was that Bullock made a good first impression, with pundits from CNN, The New York Times, POLITICO, USA Today, The Hill and others commending his debate performance. David Urban, an advisor on Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, went as far as saying on national television that Bullock is the candidate he fears most in a matchup against Trump.
In such a crowded race, it’s imperative for lesser-known candidates to have a debate moment or two that provokes conversation. It was fair to wonder whether Bullock, who often takes a professorial approach to articulating answers, was innately equipped to offer a clip tailor-made to trend on social media. As a contrast, nobody ever worried about that with his predecessor Brian Schweitzer.
But Bullock proved he could make his voice heard among 10 candidates onstage, not necessarily in punchy sound bites but through confidently expressed talking points that differentiated himself from his opponents. He also showed a sufficient amount of combativeness to garner headlines, as he demonstrated by criticizing Elizabeth Warren for her border-policy proposal that he said was “playing into Donald Trump’s hands.”
In short, Bullock effectively sent the message he sought to deliver: He’s the only candidate to win a statewide election in a state won by Trump and was able to pass progressive policies in a Republican-dominated political arena. He repeats a common mantra that Democrats “need to win back the places we lost,” which is to say heartland states that turned from Obama to Trump in 2016.
With all of that said, the road to victory is still riddled with obstacles. Google searches for Bullock surged during the debate, reflecting the fact that many people didn’t know who he was. Furthermore, there’s a question of whether it’s too little too late, after Bullock waited to jump into the race until he had finished the state’s legislative session and then failed to qualify for the first round of debates.
Indeed, name recognition and funding will remain issues, and he’ll have to fight hard to make his centrist populist message widely heard as farther-left Democrats dominate headlines.
The unlikelihood of his nomination is one reason that many Democrats wish he had picked a different battle: running against incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines. Democrats see an opportunity to win back the Senate, and each seat is critical. Bullock would offer Daines’ toughest test, but he has adamantly expressed disinterest in the Senate.
Bullock has put most of his eggs in the Iowa caucus basket, spending a great deal of time there and earning key endorsements from prominent Hawkeye Democrats. If he has a good showing there, look for his campaign to ramp up for the long haul. If he doesn’t, look for Democrats’ lament to grow louder over a potential missed opportunity against Daines.
In any case, through his debate performance and ongoing media rounds, Bullock has at least ensured himself a share of the national spotlight for the immediate future. We’ll have to wait to see where it leads.