Top Democrats in Montana and Washington are really excited about Gov. Steve Bullock running — for the Senate, not the presidency.
The Montana governor’s seemingly quixotic presidential run comes as nearly everyone in the party is begging him to challenge GOP Sen. Steve Daines and transform the 2020 Senate map. Unlike any other Democratic candidate in the country, Bullock could make a virtually unwinnable Senate race competitive and give the party a real shot at knocking off a GOP incumbent and getting closer to a Senate majority.
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“I wish he would have run for the Senate,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “Sure, you’d rather have Beto [O‘Rourke] in the [Texas Senate] race. But it doesn’t go from solid red to toss-up instantly. This is the one that would change the game.”
Bullock has been unequivocal in shrugging off the Senate recruitment, which has included conversations with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other Democratic senators. He doesn’t want to be one senator of 100, people who know him say, and fashions himself an executive, not a legislator.
“His answer on this question has been consistent and it is the same today. Gov. Bullock is not running for Senate,” said Galia Slayen, a spokeswoman for Bullock.
After announcing his presidential bid in Montana on Tuesday, Bullock told reporters he had at times been “frustrated at the inaction in Congress” and would be “more effective” as an executive. He said he had planned to pass on a run for Senate since winning reelection in 2016.
So party leaders have settled on a strategy: Let Bullock pursue the presidency, try not to antagonize him and wait until he realizes there’s little room for him to run in such a crowded field. Bullock argues that his 2016 reelection in deep red Trump country shows he’s got exactly what the party is missing, but Joe Biden appears to have locked up the centrist lane so far and there are a handful of other white men running.
Democrats hoping Bullock runs for the Senate don’t have many options other than that plan, but even a brief White House bid brings risks. A 2020 run could lead him to take more liberal positions to appeal to the party base and also be seen as a snub of his home state.
“I hope that it turns out the Senate is an opportunity that he can consider at some point. But he wants to try for the big prize. This is a world of ambition that we’re in, so you can’t be critical of that,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Some Democrats felt bruised after Stacey Abrams in Georgia, John Hickenlooper in Colorado and O’Rourke in Texas passed on competitive Senate races. But they’ve recruited a talented candidate in Texas in veteran MJ Hegar, have a crowded field of viable candidates in Colorado and see other strong Democrats considering a run in Georgia.
They find Bullock’s presidential run far more confounding.
“He’d be a great Senate candidate,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “He’s terrific. And there’s such a huge field right now. So it’s hard to sort of understand more people getting in at this point in terms of the presidency.”
Democrats face an uphill battle to retake the Senate. They need to net at least three seats in 2020 and few are easy pickings. Right now, they are staring at toss-up races in Colorado and Arizona and trying to oust incumbents in North Carolina and Iowa, while holding on to Alabama. Making Montana competitive would make the GOP truly sweat.
“There are three or four people in L.A. that are excited about his [presidential] candidacy. Otherwise, everyone else wants him to run for the Senate out here,” said one Democratic senator. This senator said it’s still realistic for Bullock to change his mind because his presidential plan is “so f-ing stupid.”
Publicly, Democrats are laying off Bullock.
“God bless him,” Schumer said when asked about the Montana governor Tuesday.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Catherine Cortez Masto said of Bullock: “It’s his decision,” adding that the party could come up with another candidate in the race. Wilmot Collins, a Liberian refugee and mayor of Helena, became the first Democrat to challenge Daines on Monday, though he lacks support from party leaders at this point.
Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, the GOP’s campaign arm chairman, predicted the party would keep the seat regardless of who runs. And Daines himself shrugged off Bullock’s decision.
“We are more than ready for whoever gets into the race,” he said in a brief interview.
In Montana, Democrats are universally complimentary of Bullock for his ability to push through Democratic priorities in a red state. But a number of Democrats wish he would advertise those accomplishments in a campaign for the Senate.
“I’d love to see him run against Steve Daines,” said Jean Lemire Dahlman, a Democratic National Committee member in the state. “Unless someone else emerges who is a strong candidate, I would assume a lot of people would like to see him run against Steve Daines. But that person has not emerged yet and it’s really hard to unseat an incumbent senator regardless of party.”
Kim Gillan, a former Democratic state legislator who lost to Daines for a U.S. House seat in 2012, said Bullock would be the “perfect person” to run against the first-term senator.
“He’s still pretty young. There would be opportunities in the future and certainly serving in the Senate would provide a good launch pad in the future to run for president,” Gillan said. “The game plan everyone is hoping for is that after a couple months that he may change his mind.”
State Sen. Jon Sesso, the Democratic leader in the chamber, said Bullock would be “formidable” against Daines, but said the two-term governor can run for wherever he sees fit.
“If he wants to take a run for the presidency, that’s great. If he were wanting to take a run for the nomination for the Senate, that’d be great too,” Sesso said. “He’s earned his stripes to do whatever he wants to do.”
Some Democrats shrugged off Bullock’s pass, arguing that little-known candidates can come from nowhere to win key Senate races. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) was a state senator when he first ran and won in 2006, and he went on to survive two difficult reelection campaigns.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said he seemed to understand the ambivalence of people like Bullock because there’s little reason to be excited about the Senate, which he referred to as an “expensive lunch club.”
“I get it, Senate recruitment is hard these days,” he said. “But I think by winning back the Senate we can start to make it work again.”
Of course, Bullock running for the Senate would make that goal a lot more realistic.