Add another to the list of 2020 Democratic contenders by way of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. The red-state governor announced on Tuesday his intention to seek the 2020 Democratic nomination. On paper, Bullock will get lost in the vast field of wide-ranging diverse candidates. As a white man not named Biden, his chances of getting any substantial support remain grim.
However, it’s worth noting that in 2016, Donald Trump won Montana by 22 points. The state is a deep-red “gimmie” state in most races for Republicans, except in the case of Bullock, a shrewd Democrat who managed to win re-election in 2016 by 4 points despite Trump’s name carrying the presidency.
FiveThirtyEight explains that if Democratic voters want “electability” against Donald Trump, why not examine a candidate who demonstrated a clear roadmap?
That’s because Bullock may have a good strategy for winning voters over. In a May 8 tweet, he said, “As the only Democrat to win statewide re-election in a Trump state in 2016, I know firsthand: we must reach out to rural voters.”
And this message might resonate. As we know from polls, many Democratic voters think it’s a very important consideration to nominate a candidate who can beat President Trump, and as a white man, Bullock may benefit from perceptions that he is “electable.” But he has empirical evidence for it, too: He has won three statewide elections in red, heavily rural Montana — one for attorney general and two for governor. In 2016, he won his second gubernatorial term with 50 percent of the vote, 15 points more than Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
And Bullock remains well liked in Big Sky Country — his net approval rating (approval rating minus disapproval rating) in the first quarter of 2019 was +26 points, according to Morning Consult. That is a remarkable achievement considering Montana’s Republican lean and ranks Bullock fifth in the nation in our Popularity Above Replacement Governor statistic, which compares a governor’s actual popularity to what it “should” be based on partisanship alone.
With that pedigree, having already fought Donald Trump in a deep-red rural state, and seemingly won, why doesn’t Bullock have a chance? The answer to that question may be fairly simple to explain and has to do with the urban-rural divide in America.
Montana, for all consideration, is simply not a good stand-in for most non-rural, non-Western states, or for a national campaign example, for that matter. Montana is fairly weak on party identification. Voters tend to vote for candidates they like over candidates they don’t like. Montana voters clearly liked Donald Trump, but they also like Steve Bullock over his Republican opponent in the race for governor. That’s a split ticket sending a Republican to the White House and a Democrat to the Governor’s Mansion.
When stepping on the national stage, Bullock will be immediately defined by issues he supports and opposes, rather than being a “likable” guy with Midwest values who appeals to his Montana friends and neighbors. In short, a national campaign will eat him alive and be far less forgiving than running for Governor in his home state.
FiveThirtyEight suggests that Bullock’s “western strategy” could work somewhat in the Democratic primary. Maybe:
But Bullock’s emphasis on converting Trump voters may still be an effective message in the primary — there are plenty of delegates up for grabs in white, rural states. The Mountain West primaries are an obvious opportunity for him, but so might be Iowa, where Bullock has the support of the state attorney general and could be a good demographic fit.
He may be a fit in Iowa, but in practice, however, Bullock is competing against many, far more “exciting” candidates and he’ll have a hard time standing out.
Bullock is focusing his campaign on the rather boring issue of campaign finance. A worthy cause, no doubt, as money tends to corrupt politics, but it’s hardly the kind of salivating issue that the Democratic base is going to be focused on in 2020:
Bullock is focusing his campaign message on campaign finance, touting Montana’s election laws that he has championed as attorney general and governor, and promising to “take our democracy back.”
“I believe in an America where every child has a fair shot to do better than their parents. But we all know that kind of opportunity no longer exists for most people; for far too many, it never has,” Bullock says in his announcement video. “We need to defeat Donald Trump in 2020 and defeat the corrupt system that lets campaign money drown out the people’s voice, so we can finally make good on the promise of a fair shot for everyone.”
Let’s be honest, the deep, dark money flows into both parties and to practically every candidate. Super PACs and deep-pocket donors prop up both parties, and the candidates all thrive on it. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and voters like to hear candidates pledge to “get the money out of politics,” but progress is rarely made at the national level.
However, what may hurt Bullock more than anything are his moderate positions he’s held during his time as governor:
While Bullock’s more moderate positions could be problematic in a party that’s been moving more toward the left, he has adopted some liberal stances recently, including support for an assault weapons ban. Bullock also expanded Medicaid in his state, while working with a GOP legislature, and protected public lands.
Sure, he’s moved left in recent years, likely setting up for a national run, but he’ll be usurped in a field of candidates with a stronger progressive record.
Bullock knows that to win in 2020, Democrats must somehow speak to the voters who put Donald Trump in the White House, including voters from his own state. However, it’s unlikely that Democratic primary voters will agree that Bullock is the candidate to make it happen.
The best news for Bullock is that he should easily meet the criteria to participate in the first Democratic debate coming up in late-June.