HELENA, Mont. — The 2016 election offered precious little good news for Democrats, who went into it expecting to win. But the party held on in Montana. While President Trump carried the state by the biggest Republican margin in 16 years, Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, held off Republican businessman Greg Gianforte by a 4-point margin. Democrats down the ballot got pasted; Bullock held on.
Earlier this month, in a sit-down at his office in Helena, Bullock reflected on his win and on the race Gianforte is running now — a populist-themed campaign for Montana’s open congressional seat. Like most Montana Democrats, Bullock thought the party’s nominee, country-folk singer Rob Quist, had a good shot at beating Gianforte.
“Rob’s running against a guy who I don’t think said the name ‘Donald Trump’ through the whole campaign, and now he’s out there saying he’ll drain the swamp,” said Bullock.
In Montana, said Bullock, the clearest danger from the swamp was obvious. Montanans wanted clean elections and campaign-finance limits. He’d defended Montana’s ancient campaign-finance limits after conservative groups cited the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United case to undo them. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mon.) had cited that issue when he opposed then-Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, despite conservative pressure for him to cave.
“Our experience since Citizens United suggests that individuals lose our voices with all the dark money that’s allowed in the system now,” said Bullock. “That’s an area where I am concerned about what will come from this new Supreme Court.”
Montana, which has not voted Democratic for president since 1992, has continued to elect Democrats to statewide office — the only one of the states holding special House elections for Republican seats where this is true. When Montana’s Democrats win, they tend to back gun rights in the context of hunting and tradition. National Democratic politics don’t fit the state completely.
“That might win the East Coast and the West Coast, but there’s a whole lot of country in between,” said Bullock. “The absolutes when it comes to either side on the Second Amendment don’t work.”
But Bullock was comfortable arguing that the White House’s priorities sometimes missed Montana. The end of the Obama administration had removed a “bogeyman” that Republicans found to be effective in spooking voters — the Democratic-run Environmental Protection Agency. But it had been supplanted by an administration that doubted man-made climate change, and that wasn’t flying.
In the short term, the administration was also alienating rural voters by trying to undo the Affordable Care Act. “It was with us governors in the White House where Trump said this health-care stuff is “pretty complicated,” Bullock said, laughing. “He just figured that out!”
In 2016, even as Trump was promising to repeal the ACA, Bullock ran on how Montana had implemented it.
“We cut our uninsured from 23 to 7 percent,” he said. “What we’ve been able to say is that this works in Montana. It’s not just Democratic governors that are saying this — it’s John Kasich in Ohio, it’s Brian Sandoval in Nevada. It’s real easy in D.C. to make statements – okay, we’ll repeal Obamacare, we’ll send it all back to the states! But we’re actually on the front lines, and we’ve seen it work.”
Montana, said Bullock, had also figured out its own path on marijuana. The Trump Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, which had both made noise about cracking down on the slow decriminalization of the drug, were out of sync.
“When it comes to marijuana, and marijuana for medicinal purposes — which Montana has — I think the attorney general is dang near a decade late,” said Bullock. “That cat is kind of out of the bag. We’ve been spending a lot of time in our legislature saying: Let’s look at our overall correctional system.”