JEFFERSON, Iowa — The Big Sky State played a major supporting role in Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s campaign swing through western Iowa on Monday as the Democratic presidential hopeful tried to sell voters on his rural credentials.
In this small community of about 4,300 with a Main Street that doesn’t feel all that different from the Montana town of Dillon, the Democrats who came to hear Bullock said they wanted a candidate who could speak to their way of life. In return, they heard a whole lot about Montana.
“He’s got a lot of two-lane roads in his state too, and a lot of miles between towns,” said Kathleen Gannon, a 74-year-old from Mingo who attended the first stop on a two-day swing through western Iowa. Bullock also went to Storm Lake and Sioux City. On Tuesday he'll tour flooding along the Missouri River before an event in Council Bluffs.
From tariffs on agricultural goods to the loss of mom-and-pop local stores and challenges accessing health care, rural Iowans could finish a six-pack commiserating with Treasure State residents over the problems facing the places they live.
Monday's first stop was in heavily Republican Greene County. Through the day, Bullock told Democrats in towns dotted across Iowa’s verdant farmland that he thinks it’s important to show up in places the party isn’t expected.
As an example, he talked about going to Choteau along the Rocky Mountain Front to hear concerns about the viability of the local hospital. Bullock lost Teton County by 22 points in 2016, but said that visit was important to drum up support to pass a law continuing Medicaid expansion in this winter's legislative session.
"I don't have the luxury in my state of just talking to Democrats who come out on a Monday night," Bullock told another group of about 40 at a restaurant in Sioux City on Monday night.
The governor also drew on the Montana example of Butte, home to the largest Superfund site in the U.S., when answering a question about balancing mining permits with environmental concerns. In response to an inquiry about dark money spending in elections, he highlighted the sordid history of when Montana politics intertwined with the state’s Copper Kings at the turn of the 20th century.
Montana’s Republican-dominated state Legislature made both a foil and example of bipartisan bona fides in Bullock’s story to Iowa voters. The governor talked about reaching across the aisle to pass sweeping campaign finance reforms in 2015, but also about his record for the most vetoes in state history, striking down bills that would have restricted access to abortion or the ability for workers to unionize.
David Weaver, who farms corn and soybeans outside the small town of Rippey, called a Bullock “very strong candidate because he understands rural, because he’s governed in a rural area.”
Greene County is very conservative, Weaver said, represented by Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King. Even though the prices for the commodities he grows have dropped from 20-25% and President Donald Trump’s actions on tariffs have thrown uncertainty into the already risky business of farming, Weaver said it’ll still take a specific kind of Democrat to sway voters here in the party caucuses.
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“I’m seeking a moderate. I don’t like Democrats talking about socialism and I hate Republicans telling us we’re socialist, because we're not. It’s about economic opportunity. It’s a very conservative district. Most Democrats here need to be somewhat moderate Democrats that will speak to the rural issues," said Weaver, who ran for a state legislative seat last year.
Tim Bottaro, a Democratic operative in Woodbury County where Bullock attended events Monday evening, said appealing to rural Iowans could be what separates the governor from the more than 20 other Democratic candidates. Bottaro is the former county party chairman and previously ran former President Barack Obama’s campaign in Sioux City and western Iowa.
“I think that would be important because I think there are certain people that are way up there in the rankings that are not going to appeal to a lot of red states,” Bottaro said. “There is a certain number that, the Trump core, you’re not going to switch, but what about those states that are more purple?”
Penny Rosfjord, another former chair of the Woodbury County Democratic Party and key player in the Iowa caucuses, said the similarities between Montana and Iowa may help Bullock.
“Rural Iowa, they’re getting hammered. They’re getting hammered by everything. When you get into these small communities, like Montana, too, they would have the same problem,” Rosfjord said. “I think he can relate.”
Bullock also wasn't shy about reminding Iowans of his reelection bid in Montana in 2016, when he won by 4 points in a state Trump took by 20. While Gannon hadn’t heard many specifics about Bullock before Monday, that was one detail she’d learned and it resonated with her.
Thirty-one of Iowa’s counties in 2016 flipped from voting for Obama, a Democrat, in 2012 to supporting Republican President Donald Trump in 2016.
“That’s what we need to work on. I don’t think we’ve done well as a party with that; 2016, after that it was all about, ‘We’re going to get the blue-collar, working-class people back.’ I haven’t seen anything working from Washington on that,” Bottaro said.
Lee Banville, a political analyst and professor at the University of Montana, said that 2016 election can be a convincing argument for Bullock to make.
“I think there is an element of authenticity in that pitch,” Banville said. “No other Democrat won statewide (in 2016). He can legitimately argue that he won in a state that very few Democrats did well in a year that the president and, frankly, all the positions other than governor went red in this state.
"But is that because there was a huge surge in rural voters backing Steve Bullock or was it just a lack of enthusiasm for the Republican candidate? That's the question. He did do better in rural communities than other Democrats."