Surrounded by his wife and three children, Democratic Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on Monday did what for months he proclaimed he wouldn’t — entered the U.S. Senate race, saying he wants to bring a Montana attitude to Congress and that he made the choice after encouragement from people around the state and getting the backing of his family.
"I do wish D.C. worked more like Montana and decided to do this in part from people I’ve heard from," Bullock said. "Also we as a family recently had a discussion and decided ‘You can either wish it worked like Montana or try to do something about it.' We decided it isn't the time to be on the sidelines."
Monday was the last possible day Bullock could have filed to appear on the ballot in Montana, which he did at noon by walking from his office to the other end of the second floor of the state Capitol to the Secretary of State's office, surrounded by his family, staffers and supporters.
By the end of Monday, all but one of the five Democrats who had previously filed for the Senate seat quit the race. On the Republican side, incumbent U.S. Sen. Steve Daines is seeking his second term in office and has two primary challengers, though Daines expected to easily advance to the general election. Bullock has long been seen as Democrats' best chance to unseat Daines.
Bullock is a two-term governor who ran in what was then a crowded Democratic field seeking the presidential nomination for eight months before dropping out in December. Termed out from running to keep his current job, Bullock insisted before and after his presidential race that he wouldn't consider the Senate.
That repeated insistence didn’t deter Montanans, many of whom took to social media with frequency and vehemence urging Bullock to challenge incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who is seeking his second term.
“For months and months, I’ve heard from Montanans literally just about every day,” Bullock said in an interview Sunday. “My wife’s heard from them, my kids have heard from them in school.”
Lisa Bullock, the governor's wife, said Monday it was a family choice over the last few weeks.
"We felt as a family that there is something that is bigger and greater than the five of us need right now. Steve and I have been listening to some dear friends across the state and even across the country about their wishes," Lisa Bullock said. "We met as a family and asked the kids for input, which we took to heart, and we just made the decision as family that at this time it's better to jump in and run and see what we can contribute."
In a video released Monday, Bullock highlighted his administration's accomplishments in office including freezing college tuition for the majority of his time as governor, advancing apprenticeship programs, passing and continuing Medicaid expansion, working to shine a light on dark money in state politics and more. Bullock will have been governor for eight years by the time he leaves office in January 2021 and was state attorney general before that.
The only other Democrat left in the primary is John Mues, a Navy veteran and engineer who works in the energy field and lives in Loma. Mues said Monday he's looking forward to debating Bullock.
The Democrats who dropped out are Cora Neumann, who has worked in the public lands and public health fields; Josh Seckinger, a fly-fishing guide; scientist Mike Knoles, all of Bozeman, and Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins.
Bullock faced pressure to run for Senate from no less than former President Barack Obama, with whom he met in Washington, D.C., last month, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who flew to Montana at the end of February. But those voices compelled him less than discussions with his family, who in the end urged him to run, and Montanans, Bullock said.
“I honestly thought that our state was at a crossroad and this place that we call home could really change,” Bullock said. “I’ve worked over the last seven years to try to represent all of our state, and working with Democrats and Republicans I think that we’ve been able to get good stuff done. … It is not an exaggeration that I hear from Montanans every single day and have for months and months.”
Still, the Montana Republican Party already capitalized on those meetings as forces swaying Bullock, releasing last week an online video pointing out many of the times the governor said he wouldn’t run for Senate and that the change of heart came after the Obama and Schumer meetings.
Bullock pointed to another D.C. lawmaker as a bigger motivator that Schumer or Obama.
“As far as from outside influences, (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell probably served as more of a motivation to me than Chuck Schumer or anybody else,” Bullock said, adding that he was not offered any sort of cabinet position in a possible Democratic administration or any other enticement that led him to run. “ … We have to get the Senate working. I would like to see a guy who does everything possible to keep that from happening no longer be the leader.”
Daines' campaign also responded to Bullock's announcement Monday, focusing more on Daines and not on Bullock.
“We’re going to win this race because Steve Daines is always on Montana’s side fighting for more high-paying jobs, against big government and defending Montanans’ way of life," said campaign manager Shane Scanlon. "From protecting our pocketbooks, veterans, public lands and Second Amendment Rights, Daines always puts Montana first and Montanans know they can always trust him to continue doing so when he’s reelected in November."
National Republican groups that back Daines also on Monday started highlighting stances Bullock took before and during his presidential run, from supporting a ban on assault rifles to removing Republican President Donald Trump from office, trying to paint Bullock as too liberal. The governor said he's no stranger to those attacks, and that even back when he first ran for attorney general the GOP tried to say he was out to take away Montanans' guns.
This November Democrats are eager to flip the the U.S. Senate, where Republicans hold a 53-47 majority. Changing the Senate math would open legislative roads that were previously blocked, Bullock said.
“I do think by and large the U.S. Senate is a place that doesn’t get things done,” he said, adding that even if Democrats do not win back the majority, he would work to find common ground and move beyond partisanship if elected.
In interviews with newspaper editorial boards around the state in January, Bullock was critical of Daines generally but didn’t get into the specifics of where he thinks the Republican senator comes up short. On Sunday he said he would expand on that as his campaign rolls out.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I thought Sen. Daines was really getting the job done and representing and working on behalf of all Montanans,” Bullock said.
Daines has worked to tie himself to President Donald Trump, being both a vocal supporter and defender of the administration. Last week after news of Bullock’s likely entrance to the race broke, Trump tweeted his support of the Republican senator, writing: "The great people of Montana can have no better VOICE than Senator @SteveDaines. He is doing an incredible job! Whoever the Democrat nominee may be, please understand that I will be working hard with Steve all the way, & last night I was 20 for 20 (per @GOPLeader). WE NEED STEVE!"
Trump came to Montana four times in 2018, holding large rallies in an effort to try to defeat Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who won reelection that year against Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale. Bullock said Sunday he’s undeterred by possible return visits from the president this year.
“There’s a reason why when Trump took Montana by 20 points, in the most expensive governor’s race in our state's history, I won by 4 (points),” Bullock said.
Bullock’s entry into the race quickly changes the landscape not only for the U.S. Senate contest, but also for down-ballot races.
While Daines was expected to fare well against the Democrats who previously announced for Senate, Bullock will present more of a challenge. Still, Daines has a $5 million war chest compared to the roughly $122,000 left in Bullock’s presidential account. Political analysts do point out Bullock should be able to quickly tap into fundraising networks.
A more competitive U.S. Senate race will also bring massive amounts of outside spending to Montana, along with get-out-the-vote efforts and energy that could excite Democrats in a year when Trump is again expected to dominate the top of the ticket.
That became apparent Monday morning as the Progressive Turnout Project group announced it plans to spend $750,000 in an initial investment in Montana to open six offices in Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls, Helena and Missoula. The organization, which targets Democratic voter turnout, will hire 26 field staff in the state, part of its $45 million nationwide program.
Additionally, Green Party candidates Wendie Fredrickson and Dennis Daneke are running, while Libertarian Eric Fulton dropped out Monday.