NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, September 18th, 2020

Scramble for the Senate: Can Steve Bullock pull off a win in deep-red 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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One Comment

  1. What a great run­down on this race. Won­der­ful, clear, inci­sive.

    # by Laura Kvasnosky :: September 23rd, 2020 at 10:43 AM