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Bullock becomes 3rd governor to drop presidential campaign

FILE - In this Sunday, June 9, 2019, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Steve Bullock speaks during the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Celebration, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Bullock announced Monday, Dec. 2, 2019, that he is ending his Democratic presidential campaign.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced Monday he was dropping out of the Democratic presidential primary, acknowledging he was unlikely to move to the front of the pack as the Iowa caucus and other states’ early primaries loom.

"While there were many obstacles we could not have anticipated when entering into this race, it has become clear that in this moment, I won’t be able to break through to the top tier of this still-crowded field of candidates," Bullock, 53, wrote in a post on Medium.

His departure was announced in an early morning tweet and statement to CNN. His campaign said the governor was not doing interviews Monday and his office said he would be available to speak to reporters Wednesday.

Bullock joined the race in mid-May, a late entrance he said was necessary to not overshadow a battle in the state Legislature over continuing Medicaid expansion. The field was already overflowing with what would become more than two dozen candidates, including better-known political figures like Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.

There were even two other western governors, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. Bullock was the last governor standing when he suspended his campaign. There are 16 Democrats left.

Bullock’s entrance into the race came alongside pleas for him to run for U.S. Senate in Montana in 2020 against incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines. Bullock, who after two terms as governor can’t run again, has repeatedly said he will not seek the Senate seat. The filing deadline for that race closes in March.

Campaign communications director Galia Slayen said Monday morning Bullock will not run for Senate.

“Gov. Bullock will continue to faithfully and effectively serve the people of Montana as their Governor,” Slayen said. “While he plans to work hard to elect Democrats in the state and across the country in 2020, it will be in his capacity as a governor and a senior voice in the Democratic Party — not as a candidate for U.S. Senate.”

Trying to overcome a lack of name recognition on the national stage, Bullock's campaign leaned hard on his 2016 reelection to the governor’s office in the same year Trump won Montana by 20 points.

Bullock said that victory showed he knew the playbook for defeating Trump — by showing up and listening to voters in parts of the country, often those less urban and far from the coasts, that the party overlooked four years ago. Though he could rightfully claim to be the only candidate who won in a “Trump state,” an oversimplification of Montana's political landscape, that message wasn’t enough to elevate Bullock in polling or fundraising efforts. He brought in just $2.3 million in the last reported quarter, far behind most other candidates.

Lee Banville, a political analyst and professor at the University of Montana, said Bullock did “fairly well” in his bid but failed to garner the same level of attention as other candidates like South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

“He didn’t have any major fumbles and he didn’t have any major moments where he stood out,” Banville said Monday.

The bulk of Bullock’s time campaigning was spent in Iowa, which holds a Democratic presidential caucus Feb. 2. Earlier this month, Bullock finished his 16th trip to the state as a candidate, and he managed to secure several high-profile endorsements, like from the state's longest-serving Attorney General Tom Miller.

Bullock worked the standard circuit of Iowa campaign events, like taking his family to eat fried food at the state fair. Playing up his Montana roots and fluency in the issues facing rural communities, he barnstormed coffee shops and diners around the state for meet-and-greets, staking himself out as a progressive who knew how to work across the aisle. 

But in the end, Bullock's cowboy boots, which became a fixation for national media outlets covering the Montana governor, could not carry him through the state to the caucus.

A hallmark of Bullock’s campaign was calling for shining a light on dark money in politics. From his days as attorney general, it’s been a signature issue for Bullock, who oversaw the passage of the Disclose Act in Montana in 2015. On the trail, he argued to get something done on just about any issue, first dark money had to be removed from the equation.

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While that played well with Democrats, it was often drowned out by other issues that drew attention from voters and the media, like how to address the high cost of health care, college affordability and impeachment.

Bullock never really attacked fellow candidates to try to differentiate himself, but he was sharply critical of the Democratic National Committee for how it set the threshold for entrance into televised debates. He only met the limit of required donors and polling performance once and appeared in the July forum, the second of six total.

On the stage, Banville said, Bullock didn't stumble, but he also didn't catapult himself into the spotlight.

Bullock’s term as governor is up in January 2021 and he hasn't tipped his hand at what he might do next. Banville said he think it's very unlikely a Senate run is in Bullock's future.

“You never say never in politics, except he said never repeatedly,” Banville said. “I don’t think he wants to run for it. Will somebody talk him into it? I would never say that’s impossible, but I think he really doesn’t want to run for that seat.”

What could still be on the table, if a Democrat wins the presidency, is a position in the cabinet. 

“I don’t think he’s done anything to disqualify himself from that kind of role,” Banville said. “I think he’s raised his profile. He comes out of this a more well-known figure who speaks to rural and middle America issues. That doesn’t position him badly for a potential role in a Democratic administration.

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