Montana Gov. Bullock joins 2020 Democratic presidential race

  • Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Democratic presidential candidate, officially announces his campaign for president Tuesday, May 14, 2019, at Helena High School in Helena, Mont. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP)

HELENA, Mont. — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced Tuesday that he is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, distinguishing himself among nearly two dozen candidates as the field’s only statewide elected official to win a state President Donald Trump carried in 2016.

The 53-year-old governor is running as a centrist Democrat who has advanced party values while navigating a Republican legislature and a GOP-leaning electorate. Bullock made his candidacy official in a video that capped months of speculation fueled by his political activity in Iowa, which hosts the nation’s first presidential caucus next February.

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“What we need to do is get the country back on track, make sure everybody has a fair shot at success,” he told The Associated Press in an interview. “I’ve been able to get meaningful things done that impact the people of my state. I believe there’ll be a strong reception for that.”

His immediate challenge is corralling enough donors and support in the polls to qualify for the first Democratic debate in June. He told reporters during an appearance at the high school from which he graduated that he hopes to do that over the next month, but he’ll still be out campaigning even if he doesn’t make the cut.

“The debate stage would be lacking a bit if they didn’t have somebody who actually got reelected in a state where Donald Trump won,” he said. “I’ll do the best I can to get there.”

More broadly, as a white Trump-state Democrat, Bullock could face an uphill battle to break through in a primary that has been defined by former Vice President Joe Biden’s dominance and the progressive energy of a diverse party base.

Bullock plans a two-tiered argument.

He pitches himself as the rare Democrat who can win over rural and small-town voters — a constituency that helped Trump flip key battleground states in 2016. Bullock has done it three times in Montana, where Democrat Hillary Clinton got just 36 percent of the vote against Trump.

“We need somebody who can win back some of these places we lost in ‘16,” Bullock said, adding, “Voters want somebody that they believe can win, that will fight for them.”

Yet Bullock emphasizes that he governs with mainstream Democratic priorities. He has expanded Medicaid insurance coverage to nearly a tenth of Montana’s 1.06 million residents as part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act and embraced marriage equality for same-sex couples. He’s used executive orders to extend LGBTQ rights and protect net neutrality, and he’s vetoed gun bills backed by the National Rifle Association and measures that would have severely limited abortion access.

He also has spent years advocating for tighter regulation of money in politics, unsuccessfully challenging the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling as attorney general and then, as governor, signing a law that requires dark-money groups operating in the state to disclose their donors. Last year, he sued the Internal Revenue Service over a Trump administration rule change to stop requiring the disclosure of donor information from certain nonprofit organizations.

He’s aligned himself with conservationists, environmental activists and outdoorsmen by prioritizing public land use and conservation — a key issue in many Western states. But he’s also been at odds with them at times as the leader of an energy-producing state, such as when he criticized the Obama administration for “moving the goalposts” by proposing stringent carbon dioxide emission reductions under the now-defunct Clean Power Plan.

His time in office has largely been scandal-free, with the occasional hiccup. Earlier this year, Bullock apologized for not doing enough to warn others about a longtime aide who was accused of sexually harassing women while working first for the Democratic Governors Association while Bullock was chairman and later for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.

Bullock’s attendance at a Paul McCartney concert in Missoula in 2014 also opened the door for critics to scrutinize his use of a state plane that resulted in his having to reimburse $7,000 for flights that mixed official business and campaign trips. The state’s campaign regulator determined Bullock’s 2016 reelection campaign violated state law by failing to make timely expense reports related to use of the plane.

Bullock joins Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper as the only state executives vying for the nomination.

The Montana governor is likely among the final Democrats to join one of the biggest presidential fields in modern memory. De Blasio is expected to announce his decision this week on whether to run for the White House. And Stacey Abrams of Georgia continues to indulge speculation that she could scramble the field with a late launch this summer or fall.

Although he is not a household name, Bullock is well known and well regarded in Democratic circles beyond Montana. He currently chairs the bipartisan National Governors Association.

Some Democrats had hoped he’d challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines in 2020, but Bullock insisted Tuesday that he is focused solely on the presidential race.

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“This isn’t for me a vanity project,” Bullock said. “I wouldn’t be getting into it if I didn’t think I had something really significant to offer.”

Bullock and his wife, Lisa, have three children, ages 16, 14 and 12, who attend the same Helena public schools where the governor was educated. Steve Bullock graduated from Claremont McKenna College in California and Columbia Law School. He spent part of his legal career in Montana state government and had stints at law firms in Washington, D.C., and New York, and his own private practice in Helena, before being elected attorney general in 2008. He won the governor’s race with 48 percent of the vote in 2012 and was reelected with 50.2 percent of the vote the same day that Trump won 56.2 percent of presidential ballots.

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