Before Montana Gov. Steve Bullock made his bid for president official at the start of May, each time he hinted at a campaign on social media it was met with a string of replies calling on the two-term Democrat to seek another office in 2020 — one of Montana's U.S. Senate seats.
Excited for your announcement governor Bullock and I will be proud to be one of your first funders to your senate campaign!— Spencer Noble (@SpencerMNoble) May 14, 2019
Senate senate senate senate senate senate Senate senate Senate senate senate senate senate senate senate senate— Trumpsucks (@Trumpsevil666) May 14, 2019
In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats gained control of the U.S. House but lost ground in the U.S. Senate. Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, won in that election.
Montana Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines' seat is up in 2020, and he is seeking re-election.
In a story published May 14, the day Bullock announced his presidential campaign, Politico quoted Democratic U.S. senators, as well as prominent Democrats in Montana, as saying the governor would make more sense as a Senate candidate and have the best chance to pick off Daines.
So far one Democrat, Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins, has announced for the race. State party Executive Director Monica Lindeen in an interview earlier this month remained neutral on favoring a specific Senate candidate but acknowledged the power of a well-known name.
“I think most Montanans certainly look at the U.S. Senate seat and understand that somebody who has been successful in Montana as an elected official and who has statewide name recognition certainly would have the upper hand in the race," Lindeen said. "But that doesn’t mean that somebody else couldn’t come in and do a really good job."
Lindeen said she believes Democrats still have a chance to beat Daines.
She pointed to former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s bid for U.S. Senate in 2000, when “this man that came out of nowhere and nobody had ever heard of him before and ran an incredible U.S. Senate race against Conrad Burns. He didn’t win, but boy he came close, and then he went on to be governor,” Lindeen said.
Bullock has made clear in several interviews that he's not interested in being a senator, saying the role of executive is where his experience lies. He didn't come out of the state Legislature, and made his run for governor after serving a term as the state's attorney general.
In a sit-down with Montana reporters after announcing his campaign, Bullock again made clear his focus is on the White House.
"I have great respect for the Senate and for a lot of senators. … But my whole career I’ve been on the executive side. I think I have a lot to offer in this race," Bullock said.
In an opinion piece that ran in USA Today on Thursday, Bullock again made the argument that the presidency was the right job for him to seek. He wrote he had experience battling dark money in politics and was able to win re-election in a state Trump took by 20 points in 2016. "I have no doubt that many fine candidates will run for Senate in Montana," Bullock wrote, followed by a reference to former President Bill Clinton winning the presidency after serving as governor of Arkansas.
Some still seem to think Bullock might jump back into the Senate race. On Wednesday, the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC focused on a Republican majority in that body, took out an ad in Montana markets targeting Bullock.
Senate Leadership Fund communications director Jack Pandol said in a press release that candidates would face "steep political costs to treating their state like a consolation prize."
Bullock's campaign dismissed the ad Friday.
”Gov. Bullock will continue to do his job as governor getting big things done for Montana, like expanding Medicaid to nearly 100,000 Montanans and passing some of the most progressive campaign finance laws in the country," said communications director Galia Slayen. "It’s no surprise that D.C. Republicans funded by special interests are desperately attempting to distract from the governor's strong record of accomplishment."
Lee Banville, a political analyst and professor at the University of Montana, said though some assume Bullock's plan was to angle a cabinet position down the road, the governor's moves as a candidate make it clear he's highly focused on the presidency.
That includes lining up top campaign staff and advisers, as well as leveraging relationships such as the one with Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat who has endorsed the governor and attended several campaign events with him in the state.
“He’s serious. He’s throwing what he’s got at this,” Banville said of Bullock.
Earlier this week the Washington Post reported that Bullock hit the polling performance threshold required to appear in the first of the Democratic National Committee debates June 26-27. Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist at Carroll College in Helena, said participating in that event is critical for Bullock. The governor is capturing 0% to 1% in polls.
Both Johnson and Banville said it's rare for a candidate like Bullock, who does not have the name recognition of many other Democrats in the field, to move into the top tier of candidates.
But it's not impossible. Bullock would not only need to rise, but leading candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden would also have to stumble.
“It’s kind of got to line up. Biden has to implode or Bernie Sanders has to be seen as too liberal and Elizabeth Warren, same deal. And that's when they start to look for some sort of middle ground. And maybe that’s when Bullock emerges. He needs to run a good campaign, but needs some of the other campaigns to falter," Banville said.
The Iowa caucus are Feb. 3, 2020. The deadline to file for Montana's June 2 primary is in early March, which would give Bullock time to jump in that race.
“Montana goes at the very end for the presidential (primaries),” Johnson said “The first question is will it still be competitive and the second is, will Bullock really still be in contention then? As of right now, Bullock’s poll numbers are very low.”
Bullock wouldn't likely be hurt by his dismissal of the Senate race if he ends up changing course, Johnson said. He pointed to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who after dropping out of the 2016 presidential race ran for and won his Senate seat.
“Other candidates have done it in the past and it hasn’t hurt them that much,” Johnson said.