BOZEMAN, Mont. —A small collection of the older women of Bozeman, Montana, are deep into their water aerobics class at the Holiday Inn’s indoor pool on a recent cold and gusty Wednesday when the governor strolls by.
About 10 feet from the pool area, Steve Bullock steps into the hotel’s ballroom, a low-ceilinged space packed with round tables and a few dozen of the state’s county commissioners. Wearing a lightly wrinkled navy blazer, a blue shirt, light gray pants and slightly muddied brown leather shoes, Bullock lumbers toward the head table, shaking hands and grasping shoulders.
Ignoring a mild cold, the 51-year-old Democrat sits and quietly surveys the crowd, which is packed with conservatives skeptical of his pitch to balance the state budget with targeted cuts or small tax increases. A few minutes later, Bullock rises to make his case, ripping through an impressive array of economic statistics about Montana under his tenure—an unemployment rate near historic lows, a record number of jobs, growing personal income, a surprising boomlet in manufacturing. Then comes the hard part: He’ll need to cut spending or find a way to raise revenues, and he could use their help. He plows on for 20 more minutes, then surprises the room by asking for questions.
What follows is the kind of understated, unglamorous, all-politics-is-local performance that explains why nearly six in 10 voters approve of Bullock’s performance as governor in a state that’s voted for the Democratic nominee just twice in the past 17 presidential elections. But, as Bullock stands in the heart of the 185th-largest media market in the country (out of 210), it also shows why 55 percent of registered voters report never having heard of him. Many Democratic insiders think Bullock could be just what the party needs in a presidential candidate in 2020—he’s the only red-state lawmaker seriously in the 2020 conversation. But he’s also almost completely unknown outside of Montana’s ribbon-cuttings, airwaves and hotel ballrooms.
Here in Bozeman, one commissioner asks Bullock to let representatives of local government have “a place at the table” in his budget considerations. “I thought I was in the auto lobby conference,” Bullock responds in a booming voice, smiling. “I am sitting down with local government right now to take any questions!” Another pushes him to cut from the state’s human rights bureau, and after Bullock gamely insists, “Boy, this is fun!,” another urges the governor to help protect a local mine in his county. He stays at the microphone until the crowd—not fully convinced, but warmer than half an hour earlier—runs out of questions, then remains at the head table to help announce the winners of that day’s raffle, reading out a long list of names and distributing gift baskets, local college football tickets, water bottles and, the grand prize, a cooler.
This is the Steve Bullock his admirers want you to see: a skilled practitioner of the art of persuasion, at a time when few in American politics still have the patience or the muscle memory. And even if he doesn’t end up running for president or if Democrats show no interest in nominating a little-known charmer from a small, conservative state, they’d better listen to a man who’s won statewide races three times and remains one of the most popular governors in the country, five years into the job—all while expanding Medicaid, tightening regulations on “dark money” and raising the minimum wage in a state with fewer self-identified Democrats than almost any other.
“He’s proven you can do these solid things and get reelected in a state that went solidly for Donald Trump, and probably still will today,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, a Montana native who now works in Washington.
“He’s the real deal,” adds Donna Brazile, the former Democratic National Committee chair who managed Al Gore’s presidential campaign. “He has the right pedigree and the right personality to give 2020 a real consideration.”
Bullock is playing coy about the growing chorus encouraging him to run, the way presidential hopefuls do when the first primaries are still 27 months away. “In some ways I feel humbled by it, but I wouldn’t do anything beyond the borders of Montana if I didn’t think I had something to add to that conversation: that we do need to be coming to different places. We need to be talking about shared values,” the governor tells me a few hours after leaving the county commissioners at the Holiday Inn.
And the better-known potential contenders are making a lot more noise. That same day, across the country, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ office was negotiating the details of a prime-time health care debate on CNN that would position him as the party’s leading voice on the subject. California Senator Kamala Harris was trying to rally Americans against Republicans’ latest attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Former Vice President Joe Biden was announcing plans to campaign for the Democrat in Alabama’s high-profile special Senate election.
As the national Democratic Party races left, and as its lawmakers compete to scream the loudest about the damage being done under President Donald Trump, Bullock sees the world differently. He hasn’t made a practice of rushing to the closest national television camera or preening for headlines to become the face of the “resistance,” though he disapproves of Trump as much as the next lefty. When he does pop into the national discussion, it’s been to insist to his fellow Democrats in no uncertain terms that they need to do a better job of reaching out to voters who disagree with them, or risk electoral oblivion.
All available evidence suggests that riled-up Democratic voters are looking for fire, not genial good governance. And the Democratic Party has never nominated a Westerner. But Bullock looks like he’s marching toward 2020 anyway.
Bullock is the only potential White House hopeful aside from Sanders who has been traveling around the country with a specific set of suggestions for improving the party. In July, he raised eyebrows in Washington when he filed federal papers to register a political group, Big Sky Values, that will allow him to raise money from donors and travel to campaign and spend for other candidates. Two days later, he announced the hire of veteran strategist Tom Lopach as his chief of staff, a move widely read as another step toward a campaign given Lopach’s extensive ties to national-level donors and party operatives from his time working with the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm and both Senators Ted Kennedy and Jon Tester. Bullock is also increasing his national footprint at just the right time—he’s set to lead the National Governors Association next year—and Democrats in Iowa say his allies have been calling operatives there, though he has no plans to visit anytime soon.
“If there’s something—constructively—that I can add, and that extends beyond just the party, but to the direction that this country’s going, as a father of a 15-, 13- and 10-year-old, damn it, I’d better figure out a way to do it,” he tells me.
He does have some good progressive views but comes across as a Montana good ol’ boy,” says a Republican operative. “He would be a really good general election candidate.”
One national-level Republican operative who has reviewed the GOP’s previous research on Bullock told me the party sees no obvious way to take him on, aside from the purely partisan appeal that hasn’t worked against him so far. A former D.C. lawyer, Bullock was elected to his first statewide office, attorney general, in 2008, when John McCain carried Montana by 2 points. Four years later, he became governor as Mitt Romney won the state by 13. He was reelected last November by 4 points, while Donald Trump won Montana by 21. Bullock likes to remind people that 20 percent of voters picked both of them.
“He does have some good progressive views but comes across as a Montana good ol’ boy,” says the Republican operative, who asked for anonymity to avoid being seen complimenting a Democrat. “He would be a really good general election candidate.”
But first, he’ll need to figure out how to make his own party pay attention.
Bullock is fond of pointing out that as recently as 2010, it was possible to pull out a map of North America, draw a straight line through the middle of the country, from Canada to Mexico, and leave ink only on states with Democratic governors. The last decade has not treated landlocked Democrats kindly, however, and the map of middle America now looks like an ever-deeper sea of red. Barack Obama pulled in nearly half of the rural vote in 2008, according to exit polls, but Hillary Clinton won barely one-third last November.
The story isn’t much different in Helena, Montana’s tiny capital, where Republicans grabbed three statewide offices from Democratic incumbents last year. Bullock now faces a state legislature that’s 60 percent Republican. So to get anything passed during Montana’s rapid-fire legislative sessions, which run for just 90 days every two years, he’s had to work across the aisle. Montana Republicans were wary of Bullock at first—as attorney general, he became known for his crusades against “dark money”—but many soon welcomed his relatively light touch and penchant for back-slapping compared to his bombastic predecessor, fellow Democrat Brian Schweitzer.
A much more careful politician than Schweitzer (who was weighing a run for president in 2014 until he suggested to a reporter that then-U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was gay), Bullock has worked hand-in-hand with a faction of moderate Republicans in Helena to push through some of his signature legislative achievements. That includes 2015’s Medicaid expansion, a bill forcing dark-money groups into more disclosure of their political spending, and increases in funding for public education.
“Governor Schweitzer was more of a strong-arm-type politician that really worked the legislature over, twisted arms. I will compliment Governor Bullock: He’s much more likable, he isn’t a bare-knuckle-type politician,” says Scott Sales—the Bozeman Republican who serves as the state Senate president—while taking a break in the middle of a weeks-long elk hunting trip.
In Bullock’s telling, the personal touch that he applies by flying around the nearly 150,000-square-mile state on the state’s six-seat propeller plane to meet with fellow legislators and local officials is necessary. If he doesn’t show up, he can’t build a governing coalition to preserve his priorities in a capitol dominated by lawmakers who would otherwise make his life miserable.
“The only way I can get progressive things done is working with Republicans,” Bullock told me. “Even if it were otherwise, the prescription for the governing part of it—just because you have the power to do it by one vote doesn’t mean that’s necessarily the way to exercise it.”