HELENA — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said Tuesday he is forming a federal political action committee to allow him to travel and be a larger part of the national political conversation.
On Monday evening, the New York Times published a story saying the state's Democratic governor is taking "the first steps" toward a run for president in 2020, citing the PAC and statements made by Bullock at the National Governors Association gathering in Rhode Island last week.
“I believe the time is right to lend my voice, the voice of someone that after getting elected has been able to govern in what’s viewed as a red state,” Bullock told the Times. “Some of the things that I’ve been able to do in Montana can also translate beyond just the state’s border.”
Tuesday afternoon, Bullock said the PAC will allow him to "share Montana's story."
“Montana has a story that I’m asked more and more often about as far as how we treat one another with respect, we actually work together to get some things done, from health care to campaign finance transparency and other things,” he told reporters. “The ability to be part of that conversation, I think lending our voice is significant (and) there is no mechanism under state law to do so, so we formed that (federal) PAC both to help out some people and to help travel, (that) allows me to be part of that."
When asked if he would consider a run for president, Bullock said “2020 is a long, long way away. I have no idea what I’ll be doing at that point.”
Bullock is termed out from running for governor again after his current stint ends in 2020.
Bullock has gained attention as a more moderate Democrat in a state that voted for Republican President Donald Trump by 20 points. He narrowly won re-election against now-U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte last November. He came into the governorship following popular Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who had previously been named as a possible presidential candidate.
Democrats nationally have been trying to find ways to connect to voters in rural areas, where they did poorly in the last presidential election. Some pundits worry the party spends too much time on social issues that play well on the East and West coasts but not in middle America.
Montana’s plain-spoken Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, a farmer from Big Sandy expected to face a tough re-election battle next year, has been held up as an example of the type of Democrat who can connect to rural areas.
“I think nationally Democrats need to be showing up in places beyond just the coasts or the bright-blue areas,'' Bullock said Tuesday, sitting in his office in jeans with backpacking gear piled by the side of his chair.
"I think at times national Democrats write off a lot of the country. And even if you could win nationally doing so, that’s not an effective tool for governing,'' he said. "So from that perspective I’m hopeful as part of the conversation (to be) really saying every ZIP code matters. And it does, not just for winning elections but for governing afterwards.”
Carroll College political science associate professor Jeremy Johnson said Democrats see a chance to take back the presidency in 2020 and he expects a crowded primary. He called Bullock an interesting possibility, but said it’s too early to judge how well he’d perform.
“It’s interesting because it’s not clear exactly who is the ideal candidate for the Democratic Party. Bullock’s strength is he got elected in a state where in presidential elections, it’s quite red. It’s also a Western state where Democrats traditionally have more problems winning elections.”
Bullock's interview with the Times took a jab at U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who lost his party's nomination in the presidential primary a year ago and is far more liberal than Bullock.
“We can talk free college for all all we want, but there’s a whole lot of people that can get a darn good job, like in Montana, out of an apprenticeship,” Bullock told the Times. Free college was one of Sanders' key issues.
The governor also said he wants a bigger voice on the national stage to show the country civility in politics is still possible. Though the state has seen some of the most expensive and biting campaign attacks recently, including Bullock’s run for governor last fall, the negative discourse here never rose to anything near the national level.
During the last legislative session, which wrapped up in April, several lawmakers in leadership positions congratulated the body on upholding decorum even as key infrastructure bills failed. The four months lawmakers were in town was not void of conflict, however, with Democrats and Republicans on the House Judiciary committee clashing regularly toward the end of the term.
“By and large we have a model of civility and much more so than what we see at the national level,” Bullock said.
After championing campaign finance reform in Montana, Bullock said PACs are necessary vehicles and allow for a degree of transparency in who is giving him money.
“To be a part of that conversation needs some money and both the state and the federal PACs aren’t 501(c)4s, the dark money political efforts I fought so hard against, and it affords that opportunity for people to see who contributes.”
Bullock is also forming a statewide PAC to work to elect people he says have the values and priorities of Montanans and who are willing to work with the governor to advance policy. Having lawmakers in the next legislative session, in early 2019, will be critical to continuing Medicaid expansion in Montana, another of the governor's hallmark efforts.
In 2015, state lawmakers passed a bill carried by a Republican that expanded Medicaid to cover the working poor in the state, but built in a clause that requires a vote to renew it in 2019. Both the federal House and Senate's versions of attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, which provided extra federal money to expansion states, would have pulled back funding enough to end the programs here.
Though both federal bills are dead for now, they served to create a level of uncertainty about expansion funding in Montana and have some concerned the 2019 Legislature will end the program, which has covered nearly 80,000 statewide.
“I’m hopeful that in 2019 the Legislature will be folks that want to come together and solve problems and continue to move this state forward and make it better for the next generation,” Bullock said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m also forming the Montanans Working Together PAC.”