Chapter ISteve Bullock was giddy.
It was late September in Iowa, and the governor of Montana had something he needed to tell me urgently. He had just finished his stump speech to roughly two dozen people gathered in the living room of a local Democratic activist in an upscale neighborhood of Sioux City.
“You have to talk to this guy!” he called out, as he introduced me to Marty Pottebaum, a stout man of 66 who is a former cop and local elected official on the board of supervisors. “He’s going to caucus for me!”
The excitement was understandable. Bullock’s presidential campaign has not lived up to its initial billing, and any support is welcome at this point.
Democrats had reason to expect more: Bullock won reelection in 2016 in a Trump landslide state. Some 25 to 30 percent of Bullock’s voters also voted for Trump, and after that seemingly miraculous achievement, a parade of Democrats looked west to try to understand how he had picked the lock of Trumpism.
“Invariably, the response would be ‘What’s wrong with those voters?’” Bullock told me recently. “Or, skeptically, what’s wrong with you, Bullock?’” He patiently explained that it was neither. “If voters are voting their economic interests, their health care interests, their education interests, they will still be with us as Democrats.”
At a moment when Democrats were confused, depressed and desperate to understand Trump’s appeal to white working-class voters, Bullock was the oracle of Helena, receiving calls from liberals across the country and hosting a stream of party leaders in his state’s capital. They wanted to know if his brand of Western populism might serve as an antidote to Trumpian xenophobia for all those Obama-Trump voters who had decided the 2016 election.
The visitors and callers soon switched from asking questions to making a plea: You need to run for president. The case was so obvious it barely needed to be made. Two of the past three Democratic presidents—Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton—had been governors. They were Washington outsiders with executive experience, not people stuck in D.C. with their years of interactions with lobbyists, difficult-to-explain votes and the accumulated barnacles of Beltway intrigue that always cling to senators and former vice presidents. Carter and Clinton had won. Mondale, Gore and Kerry had lost.
Bullock swears he had previously never given much thought to running for president, but by early 2017, after what amounted to a small draft campaign, he was convinced he should do it. “I thought that not only could I win and win in those places we need,” he said, “but I could bridge some of the divides and get government to work a little bit better than its current state of dysfunction and inaction.”
He attracted some big-name Democratic consultants as outside advisers: Jennifer Palmieri, Matt McKenna, Nick Baldick. He achieved an almost impossible legislative feat on the eve of announcing his presidential campaign: reauthorization of an expansion of Medicaid in a state—one with a bigger population than Sanders’ Vermont or Biden’s Delaware—with a nearly 60 percent Republican Legislature. On Bullock’s first trip to Iowa in mid-May, Attorney General Tom Miller, one of the most popular and long-serving Democrats in the history of Iowa, endorsed Bullock.
Polls of the Democratic primary occasionally show that not a single person in the survey picked Bullock. He made the second debate, in July, but was then bumped from the stage, unable to garner enough donors or hit the 2 or 3 percentage points of polling support needed to qualify. Last week, during the fourth debate, instead of standing onstage alongside the other 12, he watched it at home in Helena with his family.
In an enormous field dominated by a famous former vice president and four diverse blue-state senators with intriguing backgrounds, Bullock has been almost invisible. He’s never graced the cover of a glossy magazine, like Beto O’Rourke (Vanity Fair) and Pete Buttigieg (New York), who play to the cultural predilections of so many Gen-X male writers who can talk Fugazi and Joyce. He doesn’t have a gimmicky new policy idea for attracting a niche online audience the way Andrew Yang does. He’s never had a jaw-dropping debate confrontation with Biden the way Kamala Harris did. He hasn’t even been interesting enough to have had a cycle of widespread negative attention, as with Tulsi Gabbard’s unusual affection for Bashar Assad or Amy Klobuchar’s unusual use of a comb. As a middle-aged white guy in a mostly white state, there is no social justice barrier Bullock would break as the party’s nominee.
What does it say about the Democrats and presidential politics in 2019 that the candidate who has arguably the most impressive governing credentials in the race, aside from the former vice president, has been a nonentity?
Bullock swears he will stay in the race until at least the Iowa caucuses on February 3. I spent enough time with the governor and his small staff over four days in September in Montana and Iowa to know that he and his closest advisers are not delusional. They all know how unlikely it is that he’ll be the Democratic nominee. And yet maybe—just maybe—his decision to keep running is not completely insane. Joe Biden, the other moderate white guy in the race, is not exactly lighting people on fire. And who knows how many Marty Pottebaums are out there?
Every long-shot campaign has a theory about how if just a few things break the right way, their candidate could end up at the top of the ticket. Bullock’s theory is really not much less plausible than a lot of his single-digit rivals. The argument rests on a belief common among rival Democrats that Biden is a fragile frontrunner, one who is not likely to be defeated by a long and arduous campaign into the early spring next year, but one who will collapse spectacularly in the coming months, perhaps because of his age or a new scandal or Trump’s nuking of him.
This scenario is much like the fall of Tito in Yugoslavia, a political demise that will unleash a bloody fight among his would-be replacements. After Biden falls, the thinking goes, there will be a mad scramble among the remaining moderates in the race to supplant him as the rightful opponent of Sanders or Warren.
When Bullock’s advisers survey this (imaginary) post-Biden landscape, they see a guerrilla war among the centrists and they like their chances: Booker (too cash-strapped), Buttigieg (too young), Beto (peaked in May), Harris (the flip-flopping), Klobuchar (the comb!). If Bullock can just stick around until the post-Biden apocalypse, anything can happen.
This, needless to say, is a far-fetched scenario.
But then you listen to Marty Pottebaum and wonder if Bullock might just be onto something, and you understand what keeps him going and what made him so giddy standing in the living room with a single supporter, who for all I knew at that moment might be the only Bullock supporter in Iowa. (An aide to Bullock later said there were others.)
Pottebaum told me he had a list of five candidates he was considering, but he finally settled on Bullock. “He knows how to govern,” Pottebaum said. “I like the idea of somebody who’s been in an executive position. It’s easy for a representative or senator to say, ‘Oh I voted for that—I didn’t do anything to push it, I just I voted for it.’ But if you actually serve in the executive position, you have to make those decisions.”
Pottebaum wasn’t deterred by Bullock’s slim chances. He told me that back in 1976, a neighbor invited him to a similar living room event to see another presidential candidate speak. “I said ‘Who is it?,’” he recalled. “He said it’s Governor Carter. I said ‘you mean the peanut farmer? He doesn’t have a prayer in hell!’” Carter ended up winning Iowa and the presidency and in the process he invented a path to victory that has seduced every underfunded, unknown candidate since.
Though it hasn’t happened since 1976, the politically romantic idea that a relatively unknown governor could live on the cheap in Iowa for months and surprise everyone on caucus night still exerts a powerful tug on voters there. “Carter was right next door, and I didn’t go see him, because I didn’t think he could win,” Pottebaum said. “I’ve not missed a caucus since.”
In the end, he whittled down his list to Biden and Bullock. It was after seeing Biden up close that he made his final decision. “I’m just starting to lose faith in him,” Pottebaum said. “More physically than anything else. I saw him at a fundraiser here and I was scared at how little he had got. There isn’t much to him anymore. I met him years ago in Washington D.C., and to me he just looks like he’s lost a lot of weight and of course a gentlemen his age makes me instantly think, why?”
“He knows how to govern. I like the idea of somebody who’s been in an executive position.”—Marty Pottebaum
He added, “And to support someone and get him through to have him be our candidate and then find out—” His voice trailed off and he mentioned wanting to see Biden’s medical records.
“I’ve been a Biden supporter for a long time, and I just don’t hear the same Joe Biden I heard before,” he said. “He struggles with his presentation. That worries me. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about it. I’ve heard a lot of people that were Biden supporters say we’re looking for someone else.”
No wonder Bullock was so excited. Marty Pottebaum was the laboratory ideal of a Bullock voter: pro-executive, a believer that the Carter way of winning Iowa was still possible, and, most of all, convinced after seeing Biden in the flesh that the former vice president wasn’t up to the job.
Bullock wasted no time. A signature card was good, but it was better to announce the catch publicly. An aide took a picture of Pottebaum holding up his card promising to caucus for the governor and tweeted it with the big news.
Chapter IIBeing the governor of a rural state like Montana is not, generally speaking, a glamorous job. On a recent afternoon in Helena, the state’s sleepy capital, Bullock stood in the corner of a hotel conference room packed with state workers and their families to celebrate the 29th Annual Governor’s Awards for Excellence.
“The next award is at the Department of Livestock,” a host announced over the PA, explaining that Tess Moore, an employee at the Montana veterinary diagnostic lab, had implemented a top-rated quality management system. “Great job, Tess!”
Bullock’s job was to stand in front of an American flag with his lieutenant governor and have his picture taken with each of the over 200 award recipients. There was the “Ice Age Team” at the Historical Society, the “Motor Fuels Tax Refund Team” at the Department of Transportation, the “Montana State Prison Warehouse Team” at the Department of Corrections.
It was so tedious and boring that a Bullock aide, feeling sympathy, suggested I leave after 30 minutes. Unlike me, the governor was trapped there for a couple of hours.
For the award winners, the event was a big deal. People brought their families. Kids ran around in the back of the room and snatched cookies from a buffet. The winners were dressed up for the occasion. It was dull, but there were some important insights into modern politics that nonetheless stood out.
The first was how normal it was compared with everything else that now steals attention in national politics. Far away from Washington, families from across Montana had gathered to celebrate … government efficiency. Two women won an award for creating “tools and resources to address everyday parenting challenges.” Employees at another state agency were honored for bringing public records “up to current digital standards.” Members of the Montana National Guard were praised for stepping up their fire prevention work when half of their colleagues were deployed abroad. If you mostly pay attention to the extreme dysfunction that seizes D.C. in the Trump era, it can be a revelation to see the boring competence of state bureaucracies.
The second revelation was that Bullock ran all of this stuff. He has a Department of Military Affairs with guardsmen who have served in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. He has a Superfund and Hazardous Waste Interagency Team responsible for serious environmental cleanup issues. He controls an array of state agencies responsible for managing millions of acres of land. Of all the Democrats still running for president, arguably only Biden has had more experience as an executive.
And the difference between what Bullock has been doing since Trump was elected versus the five senators serving in the minority in Washington seems stark. If more people actually showed up at his events to listen, Bullock could brag about re-authorizing Medicaid expansion, freezing in-state college tuition in his state, and vetoing a slew of conservative bills sent to him by his Republican Legislature. If Booker, Harris, Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren have passed a significant piece of legislation since Trump won in 2016, they are awfully quiet about it.
That’s, of course, the nature of being a senator without much power in Washington right now—and it’s also a prime reason why a governorship has historically been a better launching pad for a presidential run. Still, when you focus on that gap between the recent accomplishments of the governor nobody has ever heard of and the five well-known senators in the race, it suggests that maybe something is broken with America’s system for picking party nominees.
Finally, the long awards ceremony was notable for its location. Bullock was in Helena rather than Iowa or New Hampshire. He wasn’t on the phone raising money or courting local officials. He wasn’t meeting voters in the early primary states. He wasn’t making a TikTok video that might go viral or even jumping in front of a camera for a cable news hit.
In the weird ecosystem of presidential politics, Bullock has learned that one of the biggest impediments is having a day job. And having a day job in Helena, Montana, presents even greater hurdles. There is no studio in the town that can be used to quickly get Bullock in front of a national audience on MSNBC or CNN. “Every time we’re on cable news we get an influx of donors. It’s a direct correlation,” said a senior Bullock aide. “But there’s no studio.” For what is usually a less than 10-minute TV hit, Bullock’s team has to persuade a cable network to send a satellite truck from Salt Lake City or drive the governor more than 90 minutes away to a studio in Bozeman. The previous weekend, they had to give up an appearance on CNN because they couldn’t work out the logistics. Needless to say, this is not an issue for candidates based in Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and the rest of the Acela corridor.
When Bullock is back in Helena at his day job governing a state of a million people, he essentially disappears from the presidential race.
Just flying from Helena to Iowa or New Hampshire is surprisingly difficult. There are no direct flights, and his team loses most of a day just due to the travel. “Our problem is that to do one thing in one city for one day is a three-day trip,” complained Jenn Ridder, Bullock’s campaign manager. When Bullock is back in Helena at his day job governing a state of a million people, he essentially disappears from the presidential race.
And trying to run for president from a red state while actually passing anything into law adds an additional burden. While working with a Republican Legislature to get the Medicaid expansion through, Bullock had to be coy about his presidential ambitions through the early spring of this year. “We met in March and it was very clear that Medicaid was the most important thing to achieve to the governor and the governor’s staff,” said Ridder. “Campaigning was secondary.” While other presidential candidates were launching with splashy videos and giant rallies, Bullock canceled a planned trip to New Hampshire and a second fundraising trip.
Any indication that Bullock was going to use the success of Montana legislation to launch his presidential campaign might have scuttled the negotiations with Republicans, who had no interest in providing him with a victory to advance his national ambitions. “Every weekend, deals were trying to be made,” said Ridder. “We didn’t do a lot of proactive press because we didn’t want to help Republicans think about him running for president. We didn’t want to poke the bear.” His fledgling campaign team was in place, but sat around frustrated and idle while his gubernatorial team worked out the delicate Medicaid deal.
In late May, lest than a week after the Medicaid bill was signed into law, and Bullock 2020 had officially launched, the Democratic National Committee abruptly announced new rules to qualify for a debate in September: 130,000 donors and 2 percent support in four polls. Bullock was too late to get into the June debate, but he had cleared the bar for the July debate (65,000 donors and 1 percent). For September, he was bounced from the debate stage, a development that some of his advisers believed meant the DNC had effectively killed his campaign.
Bullock’s dilemma—start running for president or pass Medicaid expansion—is the billboard case for the absurdity of how the DNC debate rules warp the primary process. As the process has become more nationalized, it rewards politicians in safe blue states who are either senators with few real governing responsibilities or gadflies with no day jobs who focus on gaming the donor and polling requirements.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand ended her campaign shoveling money to Facebook in a desperate and failed effort to find additional $1 donors with things like T-shirt giveaways. Other candidates have resorted to tapping into peripheral niche issues to find motivated donors. Julián Castro recently ran an ad on Twitter with a sad-looking puppy and asked voters to donate to him to “make animal abuse a federal crime.” Tom Steyer, who is reportedly worth $1.6 billion, simply bought his way onto the stage by spending millions mining donors and boosting his name recognition with TV ads.
The 2016 Republican primary showed how the rise of Donald Trump exposed the impotence of GOP elites. The same could be said of Democrats today. Everything about Bullock’s biography that the DNC in previous eras would have wanted to highlight in a candidate—two-term red state governor who passed Medicaid expansion—was a liability when it came to the only thing that mattered in 2019: appearing on the debate stage.
“If we don’t have someone like Steve Bullock at least as part of the conversation to show that there are Democrats in red states, we have a big problem…”—Jenn Ridder, Bullock’s campaign manager
Like anyone working for an extreme underdog, Bullock’s aides oscillate between utter despair and glimmers of hope. “What motivates the whole team and certainly me as a Westerner. and as someone who’s not from the coasts, is you’re like, ‘Oh my God, how are we going to ignore these people who won red states or these Democrats that are in red states?’” said Ridder. “If we don’t have someone like Steve Bullock at least as part of the conversation to show that there are Democrats in red states, we have a big problem and we’re going to lose out on a whole swath of our country pretty quickly.”
When Andrew Yang, the candidate who has most benefited from the DNC rules, was recently asked about the effect of those rules on candidates with more traditional credentials, he mocked politicians like Bullock.
“I’m Asian so I love tests,” he said. “The DNC’s threshold to make the debates has been incredibly helpful because then you just know what to aim for. So we needed 130,000 donors and that’s what we got. We needed 2 percent and that’s what we got. So I think the DNC’s thresholds have been very fair and transparent. And if you look at the folks who did not make the threshold, a clean half of them started their campaigns very, very late in the day. You parachute in last minute and then you don’t make the thresholds and then you’re like, ‘These thresholds are unfair!’ It’s like well maybe you should have shown up before July.”
Chapter IIIAfter the awards ceremony, Bullock went over to his campaign office for some policy sessions with a small group of advisers. The majority of Bullock’s staff is in Iowa, and the Montana operation is modest. The office was like Montana itself: There was a lot of open space and not a lot of people. Fewer than a dozen staffers were working in a library-like atmosphere — the opposite of the chaos and energy you’d find at nearly any other campaign office. An older woman who said she has known the governor since he was a high school student sat at a desk and hand-wrote Montana postcards to individual Democrats in Iowa.
In a mostly barren corner office, Bullock and three aides sat around a brown folding table to discuss Middle East policy. They conferenced-in two outside advisers, both former State Department officials, who were in Israel. Bullock leaned forward in his chair as they briefed him on the Israeli elections, which would take place the following day, Netanyahu’s political style and corruption scandal, Iran, Syria, and the likelihood that Trump would follow the Israeli right and walk away from a two-state solution and endorse an Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands.
“My advice to Democratic members of Congress and candidates,” one adviser said, “is to say, if and when Trump issues a plan like that, to make clear that Israelis should understand that that’s not going to be the policy, because a Democratic administration in 2021, we will continue to try to work back toward keeping two-states aligned while we try to undo some of what Trump has done.”
It was a serious briefing that centered around the difficult choices a Democratic president would face on Israel in a post-Trump era. And fanciful as it might have been, given his polling numbers, it was also revealing.
Bullock dove in with questions. “How do you put the toothpaste back in the tube with annexation?” he asked. The adviser detailed a grim menu of the unknown possibilities and pitfalls that annexation could unleash. Bullock’s adviser had explained how Trump had “tried to instrumentalize the [U.S.-Israeli] relationship for his own political advantage,” and Bullock seemed to be working out how he could discuss the issue without getting sucked into any political traps.
“But as a candidate, and Democrats generally, should [they] still just be saying we’ve got to get rid of Trump and work toward a two-state solution?” Bullock asked, trying to synthesize the advice.
Bullock was trained as a lawyer and has a reputation for being relatively nonideological. He wanted to know whether perhaps there were things Trump did that shouldn’t be reversed. “Has he done anything right?” he asked. “I mean, trying to look objectively, does he get any credit for getting closer to Israel normalized relations with Gulf states, or not really?”
Next, he tried to find a way to distinguish himself from his rivals, asking, “Are there any issues that either the candidates or, I mean, we’re generally not talking about as far as policies that we should be?” Bullock’s adviser suggested that he should think hard about the common position among Democrats that a new Democratic president should immediately rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. (Bullock later adopted the more nuanced view that rejoining the agreement may not be realistic in January 2021.)
Next, the governor met with some environmental advisers to finalize a public lands proposal the campaign would soon announce. His aides had wanted it finished already but Bullock is a bit of a micro-manager and wanted to go over it in detail. As governor, he’s faced criticism that he was too friendly to the fossil fuel industry when it came to managing Montana’s public lands and it was important for the campaign that Bullock use the new plan to address that criticism.
Bullock zeroed in on the minutiae of the policies. The language in one section about “keeping public lands public,” concerned him because it suggested that as president he would never allow public lands to be transferred or sold. “The challenge with ‘transfer or sell’ is we do swaps all the time,” he noted. (The government frequently protects environmentally sensitive land by selling or swapping less environmentally sensitive land with private landowners.) He suggested they use the word “diminish” instead. In the final plan, the sentence read, “Steve will direct the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to enhance, not diminish, public lands.”
Another section seemed a little too knee-jerk for Bullock. Bullock carefully studied a line and frowned. “You’re not ‘giving away the public lands for drilling,’” he said. “What you’re doing is you’re promoting the other use.” An aide clarified what he meant: “Makes sense. It’s more about not restricting the use for drilling, making it accessible to people.” The final language said, “Reverse Trump’s effort to devote public lands exclusively for drilling.”
He reviewed a section about “equitable access to our public lands” that puzzled him. “Subsidizing fees for low income Americans,” he read aloud. “I still don’t know how that works. So you go to Glacier [National Park] and if you only made 25,000 dollars a year, you pay less?” An aide explained that environmental groups had rallied around the issue of increasing access to public lands for disadvantaged groups and subsidizing fees for low-income earners was a way to address it. Bullock was skeptical of how it would work and how it could be paid for. “I get the goodness of it,” he said. “I just—when we’re not even paying for our park infrastructure?” They batted around various ways to accomplish the goal.
“Is there an existing federal program that we could piggy back off of?” one aide asked. “Let’s say you were a SNAP recipient or something. Could we use that as an identifier, so we don’t have to create a whole new bureaucracy to assess?”
Bullock was unimpressed. “But think about like how would you do that?” he said. “So you show up—you got 7 million people going to Yellowstone.” An aide finally jumped in and said she had actually meant to take the idea out of the draft altogether. In its place she proposed calling for a halt to park fee hikes and increasing the number of free days at National Parks. Bullock assented. The complicated income test subsidy plan was deleted and the final version adopted the simpler language: “Steve will direct the National Park Service to not increase entrance fees and choose additional days for free entrance.”
In both policy meetings a few patterns emerged. Bullock was averse to overly complicated plans or taking positions that might hem him in as president. He was not satisfied that an idea was necessarily terrible just because Trump adopted it, though he suspected it was likely to be. He was clearly aware of the political dimensions and interest groups involved. After the policy call about the Middle East he was scheduled to make some fundraising calls to donors who cared deeply about Israel. He is aggressive about climate change and talks about it at every campaign event, but he doesn’t demonize the fossil fuel industry, and some of his edits to his team’s public lands proposal were about acknowledging the realities of industry. In short, he’s a centrist Democrat.
But by far the most unusual aspect of these dense discussions was that they were happening at all. When his public lands plan was released on September 27, it would be charitable to say it received modest coverage. Impeachment had already taken over the political conversation and Bullock’s struggle to gain attention was even more acute.
His candidacy exists in a strange netherworld where he did everything you were once supposed to do as an ambitious Democratic politician—become a governor, win over lots of Republican voters, rack up progressive achievements, put out serious policy proposals—but none of it seemed to matter. The biggest bump in attention Bullock has received all year is when Jeff Bridges—the Dude from The Big Lebowski—tweeted out an endorsement of him.
It’s hard not to be left with the feeling that at a certain point in the 2000s the romantic era of presidential politics that began with Carter ended. In the 70s, the old system of party elites controlling the nominating process gave way to a more democratic system of voters in state caucuses and primaries taking control. Gradually that system, which was once defined by local campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire, became nationalized. Now, candidates who can’t run an aggressive national pre-primary campaign seem doomed. The casualties of the new system, which reward the elusive quality of fame, strong ideological views, or both, have been government service and careers outside of the coasts.
It’s hard not to be left with the feeling that at a certain point in the 2000s the romantic era of presidential politics that began with Carter ended.
Many Democrats have criticized Bullock for running for president when they believe he has a better shot at winning a Senate seat next year. The governor insists he’s not interested. The day after the policy meetings, over a beer at a local brewery in Helena, Bullock ran through his biography and explained why the Senate isn’t an option.
He grew up nearby, his parents divorced when he was young and his father wasn’t a major presence in his life. Bullock fled to Southern California for college (Claremont McKenna), got his law degree at Columbia, and then started work at a large Manhattan firm. He wasn’t necessarily planning on returning to Montana. Then his estranged father got stage 4 lung cancer.
“I had a decent relationship with him, but I’d never spent a night at his house from grade school on,” he told me. Bullock was 27 and his dad’s illness caused him to reassess his life. “I decided that if I was ever going to get everything right there I should probably move home.” He took a job in the secretary of state’s office that started his climb through Montana politics. But more important to him, he spent time with his dad and helped take care of him for his last year of life.
“It was actually the best year, in some ways, I think the best year of his life and our life together,” Bullock told me. “He died in my arms.”
He met his future wife, Lisa Downs, shortly after that and they had two girls and a boy. Despite what looks like an easy path to a Senate seat, he has stuck to running for president, because he insists that being a senator would be ruinous for his family life. The hectic travel schedule back and forth to D.C. would mean he would rarely see his wife and kids, but as president they could all live together in Washington. I tend to believe him. His staff sometimes grumbles that it can be difficult to get Bullock to sacrifice family obligations for the rigors of a presidential campaign.
As if to prove the point the next day, we drove together from Helena to Missoula for a fundraiser in the backyard of a lavish mountain home. Bullock delivered his standard stump speech, took a few questions, and then raced to his SUV. He was anxious to get to the next stop: One of his daughters was playing volleyball in town. He sheepishly admitted that he had made his staff organize the fundraiser around his daughter’s away game.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine