LOS ANGELES — Even at a tony liberal arts college in Southern California, Steve Bullock made his Montana roots clear. As a freshman running for class president at Claremont McKenna College, Bullock borrowed a few sheep from the animal husbandry department of a nearby state school and installed them in a corral outside his school’s main dining hall.
“A Vote for Steve,” a sign read, according to the school’s alumni magazine. “Will Be a Vote for Ewe.” He won.
“Even when he was an undergraduate, he had a Rocky Mountain gravitas that marked him as a leader. If I were to go back in a time machine and tell the class of 1988 that Steve would be governor of Montana, nobody would be surprised,” said Jack Pitney, the Claremont McKenna political scientist and former Republican National Committee spokesman who advised Bullock on his thesis, on welfare reform.
Thirty years after his first campaign stunt, Bullock, the first-term governor of Montana, is trying to bring a little Rocky Mountain flavor to a Democratic Party desperately searching for its footing. Just as Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) warned in 2009 of the dangers of the GOP becoming a regional party based in the South, Bullock now wants to make sure his party can appeal beyond reliably blue states on both coasts.
On Tuesday, his fellow Democratic governors — the 17 besides Bullock who remain in office after the Republican wave of 2014 — will give Bullock the chance to make his mark on the national party by electing him chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.
As chairman, he will be tasked with recruiting candidates to run, and raising tens of millions of dollars that will pay for campaigns, in some of the reddest states in America: In 2015 and 2016, voters in Kentucky, Missouri and West Virginia will replace Democratic governors prevented by term limits from seeking another term. And they will try to compete in states like Indiana, North Carolina, Louisiana and Mississippi, red states with Republican governors. Mitt Romney won 10 of the 14 states with gubernatorial elections in the next two years.
After four straight DGA chairmen from coastal states — Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D), Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) and then-Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) — Bullock wants to bring a different perspective.
“I want to make sure that ours is a party that is focusing on both middle class issues and not becoming a party of our two coasts,” Bullock said in an interview. “Hopefully what I can bring to [the DGA] in part is not just winning electorally but figuring out a way to govern in a state that has a reddish tinge, which much of our nation has.”
Bullock has built a political career winning in a state Republican candidates have carried just twice in the last 16 presidential contests. He ran a campaign for the Democratic nominee for attorney general in 1992, lost to a fellow Democrat in his own bid for the state’s top legal office in 2000, then ran and won an underdog campaign in 2008.
Four years later, with Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) term-limited, Bullock represented Democrats’ best hope. On a ballot in which Romney defeated President Obama by 66,000 votes, Bullock beat his opponent, former Rep. Rick Hill (R), by about 7,500 votes out of nearly half a million cast.
Along the way, he earned a reputation as a hard worker. He beat better-funded candidates in his 2008 attorney general bid by outworking the field. In his 2012 gubernatorial race, he put thousands of miles on an old RV, criss-crossing the state.
His first legislative session, in 2013, was marred by battles with the Republican-led legislature. He vetoed 71 bills, the second-highest number in a single year in state history, and Republicans criticized his proposal to pay for infrastructure in the eastern part of the state, where an oil boom strained existing structures, with bonds. Republican leaders also said Bullock didn’t meet with them often enough to negotiate critical measures.
But Bullock signed legislation cutting taxes on every business in the state and eliminated a business equipment tax, the Montana Chamber of Commerce’s top priority that year. In a small state where voters can get to know their elected officials, they like the results so far: A poll paid for by the Democratic Governors Association in October found Bullock’s approval rating at a whopping 72 percent. Even a majority of Republicans, 53 percent, approved of the job Bullock was doing.
As Democrats sift through the ashes of the 2014 elections, some party leaders think the path to success lies in a renewed focus on middle class priorities. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) argued last month in a speech to the National Press Club that the party made a mistake in focusing on health care reform when it controlled the House, Senate and White House in 2009, rather than on rebuilding an economy that is still struggling to recover from a recession that wrought havoc on middle class jobs and wages (Schumer’s speech was widely panned by former Obama administration officials and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who defended the Affordable Care Act).
Others, including President Obama himself, have focused less on the party’s messaging shortcomings and more on the mechanics of the Democratic turnout operation, after millions of potential Democratic voters stayed home.
Bullock has a foot in both camps: He pointed to his home state, where 120,000 voters who turned up in 2012 stayed home in 2014. And he says the party has to do a better job highlighting successes Democratic governors have had in recovering from the recession. He also wants to draw a clear contrast with an ineffectual, and deeply unpopular, Congress in Washington.
“You have this malaise that occurs because of what’s happening in Washington,” Bullock said. “I think it’s probably less running against Washington [than] for governors to say, here’s what we can do in our state that’s so different from what’s happening in Washington.”
Bullock declined to say whether President Obama shared blame for his party’s losses in 2014.
“You could arm-chair quarterback what the president did or didn’t do, or was asked to do or asked not to go. I guess I’m more focused on what’s going forward,” he said.
Back home, party strategists say Bullock has also made a concerted effort to keep the Montana Democratic Party strong. And while state Democrats lost a U.S. Senate seat in 2014, there may be the smallest silver lining glinting around a very dark cloud: Montana Democrats gained a net of two state House seats in November.