The day after launching his presidential bid May 14 from his alma mater Helena High, Gov. Steve Bullock was already traveling out of state — a three-day tour of Iowa bookended by national media interviews in New York City and Washington, D.C.
By last Monday he returned to Montana for a state Land Board meeting, events with the National Governors Association in Whitefish and two days of meetings with state tribal leaders at the Capitol.
Campaigning in Iowa, which holds its Democratic presidential caucus in February before other states' primary elections, is a priority for Bullock. He's going back Tuesday on his second trip as an announced candidate, raising questions about how he'll do the job he has now while running for the one he wants next.
Bullock is known for being a hands-on governor, an attorney who reads every bill that gains traction during the legislative session and signs off on everything that comes out of his office. Last week during the National Governors Association meetings in Whitefish, he said he's not worried about being able to balance his dual roles as executive and candidate.
"You join me here with both the state and other folks. (I'm) meeting with all of the tribal nations over the next couple of days. Yesterday I was interviewing judicial candidates. So the job that I'm lucky to have, (I) will continue to do it every single day, even when I'm traveling. That's always been the case," Bullock said.
Last summer, speaking with a reporter after a backcountry trip, he joked about how he never fully gets away from his job. Now he uses that as an example of being able to do the work of the state even when on the campaign trail.
"We did a family trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness last year. I had a satellite phone that I was regularly on, so it's a job that certainly I don't think it will suffer by doing other things, even when I'm out of state," Bullock said last week.
The governor delayed announcing his presidential bid until after Montana's legislative session ended in late April. While the timing might not have been ideal for his campaign, the semiannual legislative schedule makes running for a new job easier to do while still managing the state. The next session is in 2021, after Bullock is termed out of office. He was first elected in 2012 and his second term will end as the new Legislature is sworn in.
Most of the major policies that will color the next two years, like the continuation of Medicaid expansion and school funding, were just hashed out. And Bullock doesn't have to weigh anything he might do or say on the campaign trail against political backlash locally.
“Even though the state government does operate 12 months a year, we are taught that the government ramps up for the three months every two years (during the Legislature) and that’s when most of the decisions are made,” said Lee Banville, a political analyst at the University of Montana.
“That’s not totally true, but I don’t see people seeing him as being checked out on running the state. Most people see most of the decisions having been made during the session. I don’t think there’s a ton of danger that people are going to ask who’s minding the store," Banville said.
There's also a hint of lame-duck status for Bullock, who wouldn't typically be launching major new programs or initiatives in his final stint, said Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist at Carroll College in Helena. Johnson added it's not uncommon for governors nationwide to run for something else when they're facing a term limit.
“On the last year of governorship, a governor is just not usually publicizing an agenda as much. He or she’s done what they can do or will do,” Johnson said.
While the governing of Montana isn't of much concern in the race for the Democratic nomination for president, Bullock's opposition within the state has seized on his travels in their political attacks.
“He’s doing it at the Montana taxpayers’ expense," the Montana Republican Party Chair Debra Lamm said in a statement issued after Bullock announced his presidential intentions.
Lamm is referencing the Montana State Highway Patrol troopers who provide protection to the governor. Two troopers attended the three-day tour of Iowa earlier this month.
"Montanans are footing his campaign bill so he can jet-set off and raise millions of dollars from lobbyists, special interests and liberal activists," Lamm's statement continued. "Just because Gov. Bullock’s ego thinks he can become president of the United States doesn’t mean that hard-working Montanans should be left picking up a nearly $300,000 tab … ."
That figure comes from a fiscal note attached to a bill Republicans brought during the recently adjourned session. The legislation, which was tabled in a committee, would have called for elected public officials to reimburse the costs for out-of-state travel for state employees. However, the bill was amended to remove that provision for sworn peace officers, so it wouldn't have affected the current situation.
Steve Baiamonte, who retired from the Montana Highway Patrol and worked on the security detail for former Govs. Judy Martz, a Republican, and Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, as well as a year under Bullock, testified against the bill during the session. Baiamonte said elected officials are "notoriously cheap" when it comes to their security officers.
"Nobody really wants to have a security detail and nobody really wants the stigma that goes along with it," Baiamonte said in March before a legislative committee.
The patrol provides security to the governor's office under a memorandum of understanding between the two parties. Such agreements became formalized after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The memorandum calls for a "full-time security detail" and says as part of membership with the National Governors Security Association, the detail will travel "worldwide" with the governor.
The governor's office Friday said Bullock's security detail has functioned no differently from in years past.
"Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Montana Highway Patrol developed a more robust and full-time assignment of officers trained in personal security to protect governors, whether Republican or Democrat. The governor’s current protection is in line with this security protocol and similar to that of other governors," said director of communications Marissa Perry.
John Barnes, with the Attorney General's Office in the Department of Justice, said Friday it is unaware of any law requiring the executive protection detail to be with the governor 24/7.
Bullock's campaign did not respond to a message asking if it would reimburse the costs for the troopers to travel with the governor.
Barnes said the estimated costs for the executive protection detail over the 2019 fiscal year ending June 30 will be $780,000, and that 35% of those costs, or about $273,000, would have been reimbursable under the bill that failed, before it was amended.
The estimate includes personnel, equipment, travel and other costs. Barnes said there ways no way to estimate future costs since events are not set and unforeseen circumstances could arise.
Members of the governor's executive staff have also accompanied him on trips to Iowa, but are not paid by the state for that time.
"If an employee of the governor’s office travels with him on nonofficial trips, that employee takes personal leave time," Perry said.
Busy election cycle
The day Bullock announced his campaign came less than 24 hours after Helena's mayor, Wilmot Collins, launched his bid for the U.S. Senate Democratic primary in 2020. Bullock's announcement quickly overtook Collins' time in the spotlight, as any presidential candidate has the ability to suck all the air out of the room.
It's difficult to say how much of an effect Bullock running for president will have on what will be one of the largest election cycles in state history, with all five elected statewide offices, plus the U.S. House seat and one of Montana's U.S. Senate seats up for election. That's in addition to all 100 seats in the state House and 25 state Senate races, seats on the state Public Service Commission and other local races.
Though the calendar still says 2019, Montana has already had a slew of candidates announce for 2020.
Bullock's highlighting of what he's been able to accomplish in Montana could bring the state and local party into the spotlight, said Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Monica Lindeen.
“I think it really elevates the work that Democrats do to accomplish even in a Republican state, which I think is a positive,” Lindeen said Friday.
After running an attorney general's race and two gubernatorial bids calling himself a moderate who wanted and needed to work across the aisle with Republicans in the Legislature to get anything accomplished, Bullock is now branding himself a progressive and aggressively attacking President Donald Trump.
That's the opposite of the approach U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, took in his 2018 re-election bid, even running a television ad highlighting his bills Trump had signed.
But Bullock isn't running for re-election in Montana, a state Trump won by 20 points in 2016 and where he still remains popular, said Johnson, the political scientist.
“He’s in Iowa now talking about Trump because it’s a national race. He wants Trump’s job, so he has to campaign against Trump. Obviously if you’re running for a Montana job, you would take a different approach, but he’s running for a national job," Johnson said.
One fact other Democrats may have to address is that Bullock — who before ran as a man of the middle — now is increasingly branding himself as a progressive candidate, Banville said.
Still, assumptions about what Bullock’s bid could mean for Montana’s 2020 elections are “a touch hypothetical at this point,” Banville said.
“He’s very careful to say he’s a progressive, that he’s not a moderate, but that he’s a progressive who got stuff out of a conservative Legislature. That’s different than, ‘We all need to come together and make decisions for Montana,' which was espoused earlier. If there’s one thing that might haunt Democrats, it's this argument that anyone who’s got a D after their name is secretly really liberal and they’re just hiding it to get elected,” Banville said.
But for that to work, first a Republican has to use that attack and make it stick, which hasn’t happened to Bullock yet, Banville said. “It’s just too early for that sort of analysis to be done or that accusation to be thrown by the other side."
Montana voters are notorious ticket-splitters, something that shows the electorate is paying attention to more than sound bites, Lindeen said.
“I think Republicans always try to pull Montana Democrats into the national discussion, but the reality is Montana Democrats, folks running at this level, we’re different than the national Democratic Party, and I think that Montanans are really smart in terms of really looking at the candidate that’s running in Montana,” Lindeen said. “ … And all politics is really local in my opinion.”