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He’s a Democrat who won in Trump country. He didn’t make the debates. What’s next for Steve Bullock?

The Montana governor held a fundraiser Tuesday night in Tampa. We spoke with him after about his presidential campaign.
Democratic presidential candidate Steve Bullock speaks during the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Celebration, Sunday, June 9, 2019, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. [AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall]
Published Jun. 26
Updated Jun. 26

There are 20 Democrats in Florida this week for the first presidential debates. Steve Bullock is not one of them.

The Montana governor entered the race in May, later than most, and didn’t hit the polling/fundraising thresholds to qualify for the Miami debates. Instead, he visited Florida for another reason: to raise money for his campaign. Bullock held a fundraiser Tuesday night at the Centre Club in West Shore.

Bullock said he’s undeterred by the early setback and insists he brings something unique to the field: He has won in Trump country. Bullock was re-elected governor in 2016, a rare red-state win for Democrats that year and in a state Donald Trump took by 20 points.

And he’s convinced he could put Montana back in the W column for Democrats for the first time since Bill Clinton narrowly won a three-way race in 1992.

“And I think I could also win in Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and make Florida competitive in places we lost,” he said. “There are large parts of the country I think that I could win and in that respect I think I offer a lot.”

Unlike other Democrats in deeply Republican territory, Bullock has championed a progressive streak. He convinced a GOP legislature to expand Medicaid, maintained a 100 percent rating from abortion-rights groups and supported same-sex marriage. Last year, he refused to send Montana national guard troops to the southern border when Trump declared an emergency.

“I’ve had to balance the budget as governor,” Bullock said. “The difference with being a governor and being outside Washington is you get judged results, not on a great speech.”

Bullock spoke with the Tampa Bay Times after meeting with donors in Tampa at an event hosted by Democratic super bundler and Florida lobbyist Justin Day. Here’s what he said about his record, his chances and why he thinks he can win where other Democrats can’t.

What do you have to offer that the other 23 candidates can’t?

The next candidate has to win the base and bring back states that we lost. In these fractured times, I’m outside of D.C. Many of the issues that people talk about, I’ve been able to get it done with a legislature that’s 60 percent Republican. I’ve been able to win, I’ve been able to govern for all the things we’re talking about in the Democratic Party, from climate change and addressing health care and getting money out of politics. And until we address the money system, it will be that much harder to get things done.

How do frame progressive positions to win over the middle, people right of center and even conservatives?

Twenty-five to 30 percent of my voters also voted for Donald Trump. And they had to overlook things about me on any single issue, like I’ve never compromised on a woman being able to make her health care decisions. Most people are too busy for politics or don’t care about it. They care about, is my kid going to get sick or am I going to lose my job. I frame it on economic interests. Everyone ought to have a good shot at a better life.

Safe community, decent job, clean air or water, good public schools, the belief that things can be better for your kids and grandchildren — that’s what most people want. No one wants to run into medical bankruptcy. That’s something we addressed by expanding Medicaid and bringing down health care costs.

I don’t think it’s elitist but meeting people where they are and trying to give them a better opportunity.

What’s your plan after missing the first debates?

We’re certainly disappointed that missing from the debates is someone who won in a Trump state and governed and works in a state with a Republican legislature. We’re close to qualifying for the second debate and we’re looking forward to being on that stage.

We’re also going to be on the ground in Iowa before the debates. I’ll be doing a statewide TV town hall and actually talking to voters. I’ve won the last three times by showing up where the voters are.

We’re still 225 days out before any voters first expressing their preference. There’s a lot of time to get there. Some folks says I got in there late, but I still had a job to do getting medicaid expansion reauthorized. If I had to choose between getting those donors (to qualify for the first debate) and saving healthcare for 100,000 people, it’s the easiest choice I could make.

I think we have a good ground game in Iowa. I’m just starting to hire in New Hampshire. Even with this crowded field, these early states will serve as the way to winnow this field. A good chunk of the that is connecting with the individual and I think I have a lot in common with them and will shine outside of Washington, D.C.

Let’s talk about some of the issues likely to come up in the debate. Climate change. You’ve been outspoken about the problem, but also come from a coal state that and have criticized President Barack Obama’s clean power plant rules. What’s your plan? Do you support the Green New Deal?

President Trump’s new interior secretary said he’s not losing sleep over climate change. As a governor facing record wildfires and a wildfire season that’s longer, I am losing sleep. There’s no debate. Climate change is a threat to our every day way of life.

(The first step is) rejoining the Paris (climate agreement) and our leadership in the global community on this. The auto industry didn’t even ask to remove fuel efficiency standards, and upgrading areas like the electrical grid to allow more renewables on. In Montana, we doubled the wind capacity, tripled our solar production. Market forces are making the use of coal unprofitable but not all the plants can close overnight and as we transition we have to mitigate the harmful events.

Directly to your question, as an aspirational document, (the Green New Deal) makes great points, but we need to make sure to talk about steps we can get done and we need to start taking action. We don’t have another 30 years to sit around and debate this.

How would you handle the influx of migrants claiming asylum at the border?

I believe and most Democrats believe in border security and keeping Americans safe.

This is a humanitarian crisis that we are exacerbating, not making it better. We’re sending one-third of the aid to Central American countries than we were four years ago. That’s not helping. We have a broken system with 400 judges for 750,000 cases. Let’s actually tackle that and not just divide people and separate families like the administration is doing.

Do you support impeachment? Would you, as others have suggested, pursue legal cases against Trump after he leaves office for the charges related to his campaign and Stormy Daniels or obstruction or his family businesses?

I think we have got to recognize that there are a dozen investigations right now and Congress has a constitutional obligation to exercise its authority over the executive branch. And the administration has an obligation to make information available to Congress.

It’s a moving target, in that perspective, if all he wants to do is stonewall, and we have to challenge because Congress has to be able to execute its authority.

In 15 different stops in my first couple weeks, meet and greets, people are talking about tariffs and farm prices, they’re talking about the concern of losing their hospital, but they weren’t talking about impeachment. From that perspective, we need to address the issues that people in the country are talking about

As far as subsequent actions after, I wouldn’t pardon him, but I think we gotta a ways to go before that. Ultimately, that would be up to Department of Justice.

For those of us who have not visited Montana: How accurate is the TV show “Yellowstone"?

I actually met with Kevin Costner up there when he was filming and we were doing some work on film tax credits. It demonstrates our beauty, but not necessarily our people.

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