Montana Public Radio

Campaign Beat: Bullock’s Presidential Race Is Over; Gubernatorial Primaries; Stapleton’s Newsletter

Jan 3, 2020

This week on "Campaign Beat:" Governor Bullock's presidential race is over - but Democrats still hope he jumps into the Senate race. Both primaries in the governor's race have strong challengers to the frontrunners. And U.S. House candidate Corey Stapleton comes under fire for a controversial newsletter.

SALLY MAUK: Rob, let's start by talking about who is not going to be the Democratic nominee for president in 2020, and that is Governor Steve Bullock. He got into the presidential race late, and despite what I think was some favorable national press, he never really gained any traction.

ROB SALDIN: Yeah, Sally. You know, the reality going into this thing was that Bullock needed the stars to align if he was going to break into that top tier, let alone win the nomination. He was stuck in a crowded field that of course included a number of the party's most well-known figures with established national fundraising organizations. There were also several other candidates trying to stake out that same territory. And in the moderate lane that he was playing in, Joe Biden in particular just sucked up a lot of oxygen in that space. So that's just a tough place to start from when you're the governor of a small state. I think the other thing you could point to is just that Bullock never really caught a break in this thing, as you mentioned. You know, he got a late start because he had to wait for the legislative session to end. But there was also one moment in particular that epitomized his campaign to me. So, in presidential cycles, when the Democratic nomination is contested, the single biggest event in Iowa, which is where he really tried to dig in and of course, Iowa holds the first in the nation nominating contest. Well, the biggest single event is the Iowa Democratic Party's annual dinner, which I was at a couple months ago. It's basically a traditional Jefferson-Jackson event, but it's on steroids. It's held in a big basketball arena with ten or twelve thousand people. And one by one, each candidate gets introduced and they come running out like a rock star to blaring music and a light show and smoke machines. A lot of pomp and circumstance. They give a short version of their stump speech. Right. So back in 2008, Obama had one of his big breakout moments at this very event. Well, Bullock was great that night, actually, I think probably the best I've ever seen him. The only problem is he had drawn the short straw and was the absolute last candidate to speak. So by the time he trotted out, the arena was virtually empty. Nobody got to hear his pitch. And that's kind of how his campaign went. He had a good message. And I actually think he would have matched up pretty well against President Trump. But he got lost in this huge field of well-known, well-funded candidates. He needed a lucky break, or probably more accurately, several lucky breaks. And he just never got them.

SM: I kind of remember him saying at that, making a joke, when he was the last speaker saying, "Well, here I am, the keynote speaker."

RS: Right. They tried to play it off. But the reality in the arena is that everyone had left. It was a tough break. You know, Mayor Pete and Biden and Elizabeth Warren, all the other stars were kind of all at the beginning. But all that said, I would say, you know, his candidacy was well-received within the party and in media and intellectual circles. And I do think, you know, depending on who the nominee is, that it wouldn't be totally stunning if he got vetted for the second slot on the ticket. And certainly if there's a Democrat in the White House next year, he'd be a natural for a couple different cabinet posts. Of course, a lot of Democrats, both nationally and here in Montana, are also desperately hoping that he changes his mind and decides to challenge Steve Daines for that Senate seat that we've got up this cycle.

SM: Well, there for sure is still a lot of speculation that Governor Bullock will announce for this Senate race. Anticipating that, a PAC called the Republican Senate Leadership Fund ran an ad targeting Bullock last November that emphasized Bullock flip-flops on some issues like gun control and coal. And here's an excerpt from that ad.

"I mean, coal is no longer even profitable... The biggest problem right now that we have with immigration, it's Donald Trump." "Do you think Trump is a racist?" "I do."

SM: And that ad, Holly, counts on Bullock's criticism of Trump not playing well on a pro-Trump state like Montana if he were to decide to run for that Senate seat. But Bullock insists he's not going to run against Senator Steve Daines.

HOLLY MICHELS: You're right, Sally. Bullock has said over and over and over again that he won't run for Senate. But that clip that you just played shows that there were some people who thought that he would and wanted to be ready if that happened. That ad focused on positions Bullock took in the lead up for his run for president and during it that some Republicans think would have made him a weaker candidate against Daines. And that super PAC said back when they ran the ad that they wanted candidates to face steep political cost if they treated their state as a consolation prize after leaving the presidential race. It does highlight some places where Bullock took stances, especially against President Trump, that are little more vocal and forceful than we've seen from other Democrats like Senator John Tester. There have been plenty of Democrats both in and out of Montana that have called for Bullock to run for the Senate, thinking that he'd be the strongest candidate to help the party win the seat back. Remember, even the day that Bullock announced his presidential run, the web site Politico ran a story with prominent Democrats saying they'd rather have Bullock in the Senate race. A few days after Bullock dropped out of the presidential race, he sat down with Montana reporters and he acknowledged that he'd had some people reach out to him, trying to sway him to join the Senate race, but he wouldn't say specifically who. And in that press availability, he said again, he really had no interest in running for Senate, saying that he thinks his experience is more on the executive side and that he isn't best suited for service in the Senate. He didn't really go any further than that, providing reasons why he wouldn't run, saying that it was a personal choice. As of now, there's four Democrats running in that Senate primary and the filing deadline is March 9. So others, including Bullock, still could enter. None of the candidates right now really have the name recognition that Bullock does. And none of them have come even close to touching Daines in terms of fundraising. So that sort of helps illustrate why Democrats might want someone with Bullock name recognition to join that race.

SM: Well, it wouldn't be the first politician to change his mind. But I, for one, believe him because he has been so consistent in saying he's not interested in the Senate race.

HM: Yeah. He has said over and over and is not ever swayed on that. But there's still some time. So we'll see what happens.

SM: Rob, although Montana has both that Senate race and an open House race in 2020, I think the most focus may be on the open governor's seat, which Republicans hope to recapture this year. Both primaries in that race offer some drama, I think, with the early frontrunners facing some potentially strong challengers. What do you think?

RS: Yeah, definitely. You know, assuming Bullock does, in fact, stay out of that Senate race, this is definitely going to be the main event in Montana politics this cycle. Democrats have held the governor's office for 16 years. That's eight for Brian Schweitzer and now eight for Steve Bullock. But Republicans, for good reason, I think, believe that they've got a great chance to take it back this cycle. Bullock, of course, is term limited out. So it's an open seat without an incumbent who would have a lot of built in advantages. The state has been moving in a more Republican direction in recent years, and the GOP nominee, whoever it is, will, of course, have Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. But Sally, you're right. Before we get to the general, we have these two hotly contested primaries. On the Republican side you've got Congressman Greg Gianforte. He was the party's nominee for governor four years ago. He lost by just under four percentage points to Bullock. The following year he won that special election to replace Ryan Zinke in Congress. And then he won a full term on his own in 2018. So this will be Gianforte's fourth time on a statewide ballot in just five years. He has certainly turned into a formidable figure, I think, during that time. The other big heavy hitter in the race is Montana Attorney General Tim Fox. He's currently finishing up his second term in that office. He won very easily in both of his successful elections in 2012 and 2016. And I think, you know, more than this just being a showdown between Gianforte and Fox, it's equally a showdown between the two factions that make up the Montana Republican Party and that have often been at each other's throats, especially in the legislature. Gianforte is, I think, more clearly aligned with that kind of Trumpy populist wing of the party. And in fact, he's already received Don Junior's endorsement. Fox, on the other hand, comes out of, I think, what they would call a more pragmatic, some would say more moderate, wing of the party. So that really should be a wild one. I'm sure we'll be talking about that much more in the weeks to come. On the Democratic side, there are several candidates who have announced. The ones that have been getting the most attention are Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney and businesswoman Whitney Williams. Mike Cooney is kind of the consummate insider of Montana Democratic politics who's been around Helena for decades. He's currently serving under Governor Bullock as lieutenant governor. Whitney Williams is a businesswoman with a lot of national and international experience. She's, of course, the daughter of what are, at least in Democratic circles really beloved figures in former Congressman Pat Williams and former state Senator and Democratic leader Carol Williams. Whitney Williams has not been back in Montana for all that long, although she was born and raised here. But she does, given her experience at the national and international level, she should she should be in a strong position to raise a lot of money and make this very competitive against Cooney.

SM: Holly, there are currently over a dozen candidates in Montana's congressional races, including current Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, who recently posted a strange blog on his official Secretary of State website that seems to compare the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Native American history or something like that. I'm not quite sure what he was getting at. But whatever points he was trying to make are confusing at best and insulting at worst to many people, especially Native Americans.

HM: Stapleton traveled to Israel with nine other secretaries of state and a lieutenant governor in mid-December on a trip that was paid for by the American Jewish Committee. That trip was billed as an educational opportunity to study that country's elections and political system. Then on Dec. 28, which was a Saturday, Stapleton sent out a newsletter from his office's official account. It's an email that goes to anyone who registers a business with the secretary of state or people who sign up to get that mailing. And it touched on a lot of different things. It did start by congratulating the chairman of the Little Shell tribe on their recent federal recognition. But what it drew more attention for was comparisons it made between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Indian reservations in Montana and also when Stapleton asked the question of when tribes should live segregated and when they should blend in. It's a question that Stapleton didn't answer in that newsletter. Little Shell Chairman Gerald Gray said that the comparison between tribes and reservations in Montana to the relationship between Israel and Palestine wasn't even like comparing apples to oranges, but more like apples to onions. And he took pretty deep offense to it. Gray also said that Stapleton wasn't accurate when he wrote in that newsletter that the Little Shell were given two hundred acres of land for a reservation, because the tribes have to purchase that land. And he also was pretty frustrated with the discussion of assimilation, which is something Stapleton touched on at several points in the newsletter. A few other people I interviewed said that it brought up negative connotations going back, generations of Natives being forced to attend boarding schools that tried to strip them of their culture and their heritage. I interviewed a prominent Native journalist and he said that Stapleton should apologize for the comparison and what this journalist said was essentially demanding assimilation. Stapleton told the Great Falls Tribune in an interview about this newsletter that he sent that email to spur conversation. I think it's fair to say that it has spurred conversation but I'm not sure if it's the kind of conversation he was hoping for. Chairman Gray, when I spoke with him, said he had been contacted by several people within the tribe and other communities around Montana, so definitely something that he's talking with people about.

SM: And the Billings Gazette wrote a scathing editorial criticizing the post. I don't think this did Mr. Stapleton's congressional election chances any favors, would be my guess. There are a lot of races to keep an eye on between now and Montana's June primary, and we will be doing just that. Rob and Holly, happy New Year. I'll talk to you again next week.