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2020 Candidate Profile: Steve Bullock For U.S. Senate

Steve Bullock is the 2020 Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.
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Steve Bullock is the 2020 Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

This week we’re airing profiles on both the Democratic and Republican candidates running for a Montana U.S. Senate seat. YPR News’ Kevin Trevellyan brings us this look at Steve Bullock and his bid for federal office.

“We’re just in the way, you can drink beer still.”

Standing in Kalispell Brewing Company’s taproom on a recent Saturday with an IPA in hand, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock asks General Manager Cody Nickel how business is going. They talk about summer beer sales, customers protesting face masks and, of course, Helena area sports.

"See, I’m a Capital grad," says Nickel.

"Is that right?! What year?" Bullock returns.

Bullock grew up in the capital and attended Helena High School. If they were contemporaries, Nickel may have been a crosstown rival.

Now, the termed out governor is trying to unseat Republican Sen. Steve Daines, who’s seeking a second term in office. It’s one of the country’s most closely watched Senate races as Democrats try to flip the chamber blue for the first time in several years.

Despite Democratic groups spending big on his behalf, Bullock is framing himself as an independent voice capable of working across party lines to secure policy wins for Montanans.

“I’m more interested in not just the talking points, or speeches or partisan bashing, but by getting stuff done. So having somebody that’s focusing on that more than the sort of political food fights of the day can make a real difference," Bullock says.

Bullock first entered politics with an unsuccessful bid for attorney general in 2000. He ran again in 2008 and won, then spent two terms in the governor’s office, defeating former Republican Congressman Rick Hill and current GOP Congressman Greg Gianforte along the way.

Bullock parlayed negotiating bipartisan bills as governor into a longshot bid for the White House, which he announced after the 2019 legislative session adjourned. He says he ran for president after traveling around the country and observing deep divides among everyday Americans.

“They want a decent job. They want a roof over their head. They want good schools. And those are things that I think we’ve been able to do in Montana. But looking at how fractured our whole country is, thought that I might have something that could bridge that," Bullock says.

Bullock shifted left at times as he sought to attract Democratic voters during the presidential primary process, like stepping away from his 2016 position opposing universal background checks on gun purchases to supporting an assault weapons ban in 2018. He also came out in support of impeaching President Donald Trump shortly after details of Trump allegedly pressuring the president of Ukraine became public last year.

University of Montana political analyst Christopher Muste says the presidential campaign isn’t a massive vulnerability, but may rouse additional Republican voters to turn out against Bullock.

“I do think that’s one area in which Montanans to some extent look sort of skeptically and thought this is out of step for a Montana politician to try to win the presidency," Muste says.

On the campaign trail both for president and now Senate, Bullock has touted as a bipartisan success the nearly $400 million in infrastructure spending he signed into law last year. After a nearly decade-long stalemate, Republican and Democratic state lawmakers found an agreeable balance of cash and bonds to fund the projects.

“I think I’ve been pleased not just with what we’ve accomplished but the way we’ve actually gotten it accomplished," Bullock says.

Bullock also cites expanding Medicaid in 2015 as one of his biggest political achievements.

The policy win came with a compromise last year when Democratic state lawmakers agreed with Republicans to renew the program with an 80-hour-per-month work requirement for some enrollees, which has yet to be put in place.

“It was a pretty challenging political environment," Bullock says.

Other policy battles have proved even more trying.

Although he got a temporary pilot program off the ground, Bullock wasn’t able to accomplish his two-term goal of creating permanent, publicly-funded preschool in Montana.

The governor also couldn’t convince Republican state lawmakers to raise taxes in 2017 to avoid sweeping cuts to the Department of Public Health and Human Services amid a $220 million state budget shortfall.

Mary Windecker with the Behavioral Health Alliance of Montana says the cuts decimated behavioral health services across the state and led to a spike in involuntary commitments to mental health hospitals.

“I think it was a case of these communities that were really the most vulnerable getting caught in a political battle," Windecker says.

Windecker says she can’t make the call as to whether Bullock should’ve handled the cuts differently because nobody really understood the impact they would have at the time.

Bullock campaign spokesperson Sean Manning deflects blame to Republican legislative leadership and says Bullock prioritized the restoration of those cuts in 2019.

More recently, Bullock has received both criticism and praise for his management of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

After a recent campaign event with Kalispell Regional Healthcare workers, nurse Andrea Lueck commends Bullock’s use of executive emergency powers, including a shutdown and mask mandate, saying they were based on science, not partisanship.

“They were strong measures, but I think they were appropriate to keeping Montana safe, to keep our health care systems from being overwhelmed," Lueck says.

Others say Bullock went too far with the statewide stay-at-home order and mask mandate.

With a case count rate that tipped from one of the lowest in the nation this spring to third highest this fall, Bullock has been hesitant to take up those emergency powers again, instead calling on Montanans to adhere to health orders already in place.

He’s also calling on Sen. Daines and other lawmakers to pass more state aid for testing and keeping schools and hospitals prepared.

“I would hope that, both from the administration and from Congress, they recognize that folks are still hurting out there. And this virus isn’t going away after the election so we have to find out ways to preserve both the health and economic opportunities for folks," Bullock says.

Daines is painting Bullock as a proxy for prominent Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and former President Barack Obama, who both pitched Bullock on the Senate run after he repeatedly said his role was as an executive, not legislator.

“I’ve said it before. I’ve said it during. I said it when I got out. So yeah, I’m not running for Senate," Bullock said in this clip of archival tape.

Bullock says his goal remains the same regardless of which office he’s running for: make Washington D.C. work more like Montana, meaning a place where policy takes precedence over partisan rancor.

Bullock says he’s stood up to both Obama and Trump on actions that weren’t in Montanans’ best interests. The governor criticized Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which limited power plant carbon pollution, and condemned Obama’s veto of a bill to begin Keystone XL pipeline construction.

As for the Trump administration, Bullock successfully sued to remove William Perry Pendley as acting director of the Bureau of Land Management because he didn’t undergo the confirmation process after serving for longer than a year. Bullock calls Pendley’s tenure an example of executive overreach.

“We need more of that voice of being willing to stand up to your own party leaders as well as those that are on the other side of the aisle," Bullock says.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on the Affordable Care Act soon after Election Day, and if the nation's health care law is overturned, Bullock says Congress may need to direct its energy toward new health care policy.

He supports creating a public health insurance option that ensures high reimbursement rates for rural hospitals while still allowing for private market plans.

“We have to make sure folks have affordable, accessible health care. And that doesn’t mean a government takeover; it means building off what we have," Bullock says.

Campaign materials outline other health care goals, like encouraging competition among insurers and giving consumers more choice, but don’t offer details about a specific public option plan to achieve them.

Bullock says he would also focus on a significant federal infrastructure bill to improve communities and create jobs. He says the pandemic, and subsequently telehealth and remote education, has illustrated the need to further develop broadband internet infrastructure in Montana. Bullock also supports investing in water infrastructure and improving roads through the Highway Trust Fund.

“If we can’t bring Democrats and Republicans together on infrastructure, well then that system’s probably more broken than I could ever imagine," Bullock says.

Bullock says he would take cues from Montanans on other legislative priorities, like policies he’s supported tackling what he calls the corrupting influence of dark money on politics.

Bullock has hauled in $38 million this election cycle according to campaign filings, while Daines has raised $24.5 million. The Center for Responsive Politics says outside groups have spent another $90 million trying to influence the race. It’s the fifth most expensive of all time nationally, according to Advertising Analytics, which tracks TV ad spending.

Bullock continues to share his message in person around Montana, including at a recent stump speech in Pablo.

Attendees lined a Salish Kootenai College parking lot in their cars to avoid close contact and, aided by a big screen, watched Bullock speak drive-in movie style. Drivers delivered rounds of honks as Bullock emphasized a collaborative approach to making laws.

“Washington ought to be working for you, not the corporations, not the special interests. I’ll never forget who my boss is, just like I never have in the past!" Bullock says over honks from the assembled vehicles.

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes member Corky Clairmont, a retired artist, plans to vote Democrat in November. He hopes Bullock can stand against foreign election meddling, reinstate environmental protections rolled back during the Trump presidency, and forcefully check what he considers regressive policies like immigrant family separation, which Bullock doesn’t support.

For Clairmont, the country’s founding principles are on the line this election season.

“Well, do we want a dictatorship or do we want a democracy? I kind of choose democracy," Clairmont says.

The Cook Political Report considers Montana’s Senate race a toss up. It could play a key role in determining the balance of power in Congress as Republicans and Democrats wrestle for control of the Senate.

Election Day is Nov. 3.

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