The Democratic presidential field keeps expanding. Not unreasonably, Democratic politicians figure their candidacies have as good a chance as anyone’s to catch fire. The worst that can happen, they figure, is go back to their day jobs. From the perspective of the party and voters, however the question should be whether the 10th or 15th (or whatever) candidate adds something to the mix. In the case of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, the answer is an emphatic yes.
The first question may be: Who the heck is Steve Bullock? Iowa voters are about to find out. Politico reports, “Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana will travel to Iowa at the end of the week as he further explores a run for the Democratic presidential nomination, his Big Sky Values PAC told POLITICO on Tuesday.” Right now he’s tied up with the state legislative sessions, but that doesn’t mean he’s been doing nothing. “Even if he publicly remains coy about his ambitions, Bullock and his team have been quietly laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign. Big Sky Values PAC, for instance, has already tapped veteran operative Megan Simpson to begin organizing in Iowa, as Iowa Starting Line first reported earlier this month.” Those who know him in the party tout him as a solid retail politician with more energy and charisma than, say, low-key former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper.
Why should Democrats want Bullock in the race? First, a red-state Democratic governor brings needed perspective to the race. He narrowly won in 2012 and was reelected in 2016, a horrible year for Democrats. A poll released last month showed Bullock “received the highest approval [besting two U.S. senators] ratings from Montana respondents with 60 percent of all voters strongly approving or approving of the job he is doing while 34 percent disapprove. Democrats gave him a 91 percent approval rating, while 59 percent of Republicans said they disapprove or strongly disapprove of Bullock. However, 72 percent of independent voters favor the job he is doing.” (Surveys have shown him to be the most popular Democratic governor in the country.) Someone who knows how to win in a Republican state and yet keep his approval rating in his own party very high is someone Democrats should hear from.
Second, Bullock presents himself as a unifying force in the party, which he says cannot merely play to coastal elites. He tells Democrats to show up everywhere and stress the bread-and-butter issues. (As Richard North Patterson put it on HuffPost: “Bullock’s advice is typically practical and pithy: Show up. Listen as much as you talk. Emphasize pocketbook issues. Winning is not about litmus tests or micro-targeting: If you write off everyone who disagrees with you, you lose the capacity to govern. Turning out the base and persuading the unconvinced are not mutually exclusive.”)
Third, Bullock has accomplished progressive objectives — expanding Medicaid, investing in education, campaign finance reform, protecting the environment — and maintains his pro-choice, pro-same-sex marriage positions in a state that voted overwhelmingly for President Trump in 2016. “Steve Bullock has managed not only to win elections in a red state, he passed Medicaid expansion through a very Republican legislature. That required some serious political chops,” says the moderate group Third Way’s Matt Bennett. “His focus will be on kitchen table issues, not faculty lounge debates. That’s unlikely to make him a Twitter favorite, but it’s exactly what voters want in a nominee.”
Fourth, with the possible exception of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), no one in the mix for 2020 talks more about the influence of “dark money.” He has been a staunch supporter of Montana’s limits on direct campaign contributions. In 2017, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld the limits, Bullock said, "For a century in Montana, winning an election for state office has meant going door to door and meeting face to face with everyday voters: democracy at its best. Today, we’re one step closer to keeping it that way. Elections should be decided by ‘we the people’ — not by corporations, millionaires, or wealthy special interests buying more television ads.”
So, although Bullock lacks name recognition at this stage, there’s plenty in his record for Democrats to like. “Governor Bullock has an impressive record of championing political reform and going after dark money, all while winning reelection in a state Trump won by 20 points,” Neera Tanden, head of the Center for American Progress, tells me. “He will add a lot to the debates as a candidate as Democrats look for a ticket that can take on Trump.,
Democrats keep telling us they favor electability over ideology. If a Montana governor seems a strange solution to the party’s electoral woes, consider the first post-Watergate presidential election. That race was largely about restoring trust and good government. It took a Democratic governor from a red state who emerged from a large field of candidates, Jimmy Carter, to oust Republicans from the White House. Perhaps that’s a model to try again.