Scramble for the Senate: Montana
Scramble for the Senate: Montana

To say that Don­ald Trump won the state of Mon­tana in 2016 would be an major under­state­ment. The Repub­li­can nom­i­nee blew Hilary Clin­ton out of the water, beat­ing his Demo­c­ra­t­ic rival by over twen­ty points.

Mon­tana – like its neigh­bor­s Ida­ho, Wyoming, and the two Dako­tas – is con­sid­ered by most polit­i­cal ana­lysts to be one of the nation­al citadels of Repub­li­can­ism, and Trump is on track to win there again in November.

How­ev­er, the Trea­sure State has a more com­plex polit­i­cal land­scape than pres­i­den­tial elec­tion results would suggest.

In 2016, the same vot­ers who hand­ed their state’s Elec­toral Col­lege votes to Don­ald Trump also re-elec­t­ed a Demo­c­rat to the governor’s man­sion in Hele­na. Four years lat­er that Demo­c­rat – Steve Bul­lock – is run­ning for the U.S. Senate.

Orig­i­nal­ly, Bul­lock had much bold­er ambi­tions for 2020 — he was one of the two dozen Democ­rats who jumped into the race for the presidency.

Steve Bullock campaign in Iowa during the Democratic presidential primaries
Steve Bul­lock cam­paigned exten­sive­ly in Iowa dur­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial pri­maries (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under a Cre­ative Com­mons license)

Unfor­tu­nate­ly for Bul­lock, his late entry to the race and his rel­a­tive­ly low pro­file put him at a dis­ad­van­tage almost imme­di­ate­ly. He didn’t help him­self in the sec­ond round of debates (the only round he qual­i­fied to enter) by sid­ing with neolib­er­als like John Delaney against the dynam­ic duo of Eliz­a­beth War­ren and Bernie Sanders, and got thor­ough­ly dressed down as a result. Bul­lock failed to qual­i­fy for any more debates, and dropped out of the race in December.

Although Bul­lock failed to impress Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers, Chuck Schumer’s team soon came call­ing. After much coax­ing, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­a­to­r­i­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee recruit­ed Bul­lock to take on Sen­a­tor Steve Daines in his home state.

Once Bul­lock entered the race, all the oth­er promi­nent can­di­dates quick­ly with­drew. Bul­lock won over 95% of the vote in the primary.

Bullock’s run for Sen­ate could not have been timed more perfectly.

The coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic (or rather, the White House’s pathet­ic response to it) has put the role of gov­er­nor at the front and cen­ter of polit­i­cal life to a degree unseen for decades. While Bul­lock has not had the nation­al media cov­er­age of Andrew Cuo­mo or Gretchen Whit­mer, he has actu­al­ly had more suc­cess; Mon­tana has the low­est COVID-19 infec­tion rate in the coun­try, thanks large­ly to the effec­tive mea­sures tak­en by Bullock’s office. Vot­ers have tak­en notice, and Bul­lock enjoys extreme­ly high approval rat­ings.

Bullock’s oppo­nent, Steve Daines, came to the race with a belief that stick­ing to Trump like glue would be reward­ed by Mon­tanans. This strat­e­gy has back­fired so far, as Trump has floun­dered in response to nation­al crises, but Daines has stuck with his strat­e­gy. The Mon­tana sen­a­tor was one of the only politi­cians in the coun­try to actu­al­ly praise Trump after Trump unleashed police and Nation­al Guard troops on peace­ful pro­test­ers in order to pose for a pub­lic­i­ty stunt.

Daines’ approval rat­ing among Mon­tanans is twen­ty per­cent behind Bullock’s.

Although reli­able polling in Mon­tana can be hard to come by, Cook Polit­i­cal Report recent­ly changed their assess­ment of the race from “lean Repub­li­can’ to “toss up.”

Gov­er­nor Bul­lock por­trays him­self as a mid­dle of the road­er who can work with Repub­li­cans. On many issues, he oppos­es pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy direc­tions. Dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry he argued against Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and his views on nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion are disconcerting.

How­ev­er, Bul­lock has excelled at push­ing for a num­ber of pro­gres­sive pri­or­i­ties in Mon­tana. Most notably, he has cam­paigned for years against the cor­rupt­ing influ­ence of mon­ey in pol­i­tics. As Montana’s Attor­ney Gen­er­al, Bul­lock defend­ed a Mon­tana state law in a case that effec­tive­ly became a chal­lenge to the Supreme Court’s Cit­i­zens Unit­ed (or as we pre­fer to call it, Cor­po­ra­tions Unit­ed) deci­sion.

As gov­er­nor, Bul­lock has pro­mot­ed leg­is­la­tion and took exec­u­tive action to cur­tail the spread of dark mon­ey in his state’s pol­i­tics. Bullock’s deter­mi­na­tion on this issue – which affects all oth­er issues in the mon­ey-soaked halls of Con­gress – would make him an asset for pro­gres­sives in the Senate.

Bul­lock has also shown an encour­ag­ing flex­i­bil­i­ty on cer­tain issues. His stance on gun safe­ty has changed over the years as he has become increas­ing­ly in favor of gun respon­si­bil­i­ty laws. It is not too far a stretch to imag­ine a future Sen­a­tor Bul­lock could be pushed to the Left on issues like health­care and cli­mate justice.

Of course, first Bul­lock has to win. Polling sug­gests he’s with­in strik­ing dis­tance of Daines. He will need to fin­ish strong despite the pan­dem­ic, and con­vince Mon­tanans to vote a split tick­et. Bul­lock can take com­fort in the fact that Jon Tester was able to pre­vail over his Repub­li­can oppo­nent two years ago despite Trump’s repeat­ed trips to the state to cam­paign against him.

Mon­tanans may still feel an affin­i­ty for Trump, but that does­n’t mean they’re unwill­ing to con­sid­er a Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date in a down­bal­lot race.

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