Campaigns

Montana’s Steve Bullock warns Democrats they’re at risk of losing to Trump

Two-term governor is the only presidential candidate who’s won statewide in a Trump state

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is warning Democrats that the policy positions of some of his fellow 2020 hopefuls would will throw the election to President Donald Trump. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock delivered a stern warning Wednesday that his fellow Democratic presidential candidates are putting the party at risk of losing to President Donald Trump in 2020.

“We are well on our way to losing this election long before it ever even has really started,” he said in a speech at the National Press Club.

The only one of the two dozen Democrats running for president who has won statewide office in a state Trump also won, Bullock criticized the Democratic field for taking policy positions that he said will hand Trump the election.

He also reiterated his support for ending the filibuster in the Senate, putting him at odds with other moderates running for president such as Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet

Bullock won reelection in Montana by less than 4 points on the same day in 2016 that Trump carried the state by 20 points. He’s using his red-state bona fides to argue that he’s the candidate who can expand the map and cut into Trump’s electoral coalition.

In the wake of two mass shootings over the weekend, Bullock has argued that’s especially the case when it comes to appealing to red-state voters on gun control.

“I believe I can speak to folks who live in gun country,” he said, noting that he’s a gun owner and hunter. “I know their hearts, and their hearts are not with the white supremacists and domestic terrorists.”

The two-term governor, who also served a term as Montana attorney general, has been making the rounds on national TV in the past few days sharing his personal experience with gun violence. In 1994, his 11-year-old nephew was shot and killed on his school playground by a classmate.

After campaigning against an assault weapons ban and universal background checks during his 2016 reelection, Bullock reversed both positions in the middle of 2018, fueling suspicions that he was preparing for a national campaign. He dismissed a question about how his recent evolution might give base voters pause in the primary and suggested that his identity as a gun owner will actually give him more credibility.

“The House has done its job, but the Senate won’t act,” Bullock said, alluding to background check legislation the House passed in February.

As both state attorney general and governor, Bullock has made campaign finance one of his signature issues. Just as he did in last week’s Democratic debate, he connected money in politics to gun violence, specifically calling out the National Rife Association.

“If we were to pass meaningful anti-corruption laws, then rather than being the most feared man in Washington, Wayne LaPierre would be just another dweeb in a thousand-dollar Italian suit,” Bullock said, referring to the NRA chief executive. 

Like other presidential candidates since this weekend’s shootings, Bullock also blamed Trump for inciting violence.

“Here is a sentence I never thought I’d utter — The President of the United States gives aid and comfort to the enemies of democracy abroad, and incites the enemies of decency at home,” he said. Asked if Trump is a racist, Bullock quickly responded, “Yes.”

While Bullock said he wanted to see Trump’s presidency end “more than anything in the word,” his loudest message Wednesday wasn’t directed at the president but at his fellow Democrats, and the voters who might be swayed by them. 

“As I stood there on the debate stage last week, and listened to the next night, I saw his reelection become more likely with each passing minute,” Bullock said, painting his opponents’ calls for ending private health insurance, extending insurance coverage to undocumented immigrants and decriminalizing illegal immigration as “the politics of self-destruction.”

The governor praised the 2010 health care law and said he was incredulous that after so many attempts from Republicans, it’s now Democrats who’d like to do away with it.

“If you propose abolishing private health insurance, you will lose. You will reelect Trump,” Bullock said.

“That may sell in Burlington; it won’t sell in Billings,” he added, referring to rival Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Vermont hometown without calling out his opponents by name.

The “Medicare for All” bill introduced by Sanders, and endorsed by several other presidential contenders, would end private insurance. A few other candidates have proposed plans to expand public coverage while also preserving private insurance, at least for a while.

“I guarantee you, if I am the nominee, I will place a bet here with all of you that I will carry Vermont and Massachusetts and California,” Bullock said, a not-so-subtle jab at Sanders and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.

“But I wonder if the senators from Vermont and Massachusetts and California can make that same guarantee about carrying Montana, or Michigan, or Wisconsin, or Pennsylvania,” he added, listing four states Trump carried in 2016. 

“If I come up short in this primary, I will work ceaselessly to defeat Mr. Trump,” Bullock said. “But some of my fellow Democratic candidates aren’t making it easy.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.