Special Sauce?

Can Montana Democrats’ Experiment Go National?

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s party is on the ropes, but can this Western Democrat’s brand of politics help lead it back to power? He’s not so sure.

William Campbell-Corbis/Getty

HELENA, Montana—Steve Bullock’s laugh seems like it will knock pictures off the wall.

It’s a hearty guffaw that sounds steam-operated; a locomotive that emerged every few minutes in his second-floor office in Montana’s Capitol building on Monday afternoon. It filled the airy space, occupied by the general assortment of plush leather chairs one would expect in such an office reverberating all the way to the back wall where a collection of framed photographs and a menorah sat. The menorah was given to Bullock by a group of rabbis in the state after the governor spoke out against online anti-Semitism directed at the town of Whitefish, home to white nationalist Richard Spencer’s mother.

In Big Sky Country, as anyone would happily explain, voters can pick a Democratic governor who worked to expand Medicaid and an insurgent former real-estate mogul Republican president on the same ballot.

And that’s exactly what happened.

“Your experiment was my life,” Bullock said, erupting into the laugh, when The Daily Beast suggested that Montana had pulled off an interesting electoral experiment in 2016.

As the floor fell out from under the Democrats in 2016, Bullock emerged victorious and was re-elected in a state that backed President Trump by a whopping 20 points.

So now, the former lawyer and attorney general of the state, has been singled out to answer the most pressing question facing the party: What the hell do they do now?

“What’s the approach going to be?” Bullock seemed to be asking himself, his legs folded in such a way that he took up his entire armchair. “If the approach is going to be, we’ll cobble together this group and this group and this group. Even if you win the presidency, you’re not going to be able to effectively govern.”

He avoided explicit criticism of the party apparatus in 2016 and of the nominee Hillary Clinton but still seemed to suggest that simple messaging was an issue.

For Bullock, it’s always been about trying to cut to the marrow of politics and getting the big money and corporate interests out the way. He came to national prominence in 2012 by fighting the Citizens United decision, using Montana’s 100-year-old ban on corporate campaign expenditures as his defense.

“It’s too bad American electoral races aren’t as transparent as NASCAR races,” Bullock wrote in a 2012 op-ed. “Tattooed across NASCAR drivers’ jumpsuits and over every square inch of their cars are the logos of the companies sponsoring the teams, underwriting the costs, paying their salaries. Everyone can see who the drivers represent and who is footing the bill.”

The Montana law, dated to 1912, forbid corporate political spending in an era where wealthy mining barons essentially decided the fate of the state’s politics. In 2012, the Montana Supreme Court sided with Bullock, determining that even after the Citizens United ruling, the state was justified in banning corporations’ spending in political races.

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But the fight didn’t end there.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, decided to overturn Montana’s law saying that the state’s arguments “either were already rejected in Citizens United, or fail to meaningfully distinguish that case.”

Bullock was obviously upset.

“It is a sad day for our democracy and for those of us who still want to believe that the United States Supreme Court is anything more than another political body in Washington, D.C.,” he wrote at the time.

Now he sees an opening for a kindred spirit to make his way to Washington, D.C., in folk singer Rob Quist, who is running in the congressional special election on Thursday powered mostly by small contributions of people throughout the state and beyond.

Oh, and it’s a chance to see Bullock’s 2016 opponent multimillionaire businessman Greg Gianforte lose. Again.

“When Mr. Gianforte ran against me I don’t think he used the words ‘Donald Trump’ twice,” Bullock said. “Coming out, from the first day [of this campaign] he was saying I’ll be part of the Trump train and we’ll drain the swamp. Perhaps he’s been trying to nationalize it more so that there’ll be greater enthusiasm for his candidacy.”

Gianforte has held a steady lead in the race but in recent days, Quist, bolstered by a whirlwind tour with Senator Bernie Sanders over the weekend, has crept up in the polls.

In the days and weeks leading up to the special election, the American Health Care Act’s passage in the House of Representatives has become a lightning rod. Quist has spoken effusively throughout the state about his previous medical bills and has lambasted the legislation as the “un-American health care plan.” Meanwhile, Gianforte has been publicly noncommittal on the bill but expressed muted optimism about it during a call with lobbyists.

Bullock told The Daily Beast that he believes the distinction in Gianforte’s remarks would prove to be a negative for him in this race.

“Montanans expect you to say what you’re going to say and actually do what you’re going to say,” Bullock said. “So this sort of saying one thing to folks here and then getting on a call with some corporate lobbyists and saying ‘oh this is a good move.’ That alone doesn’t resonate real well.”

And maybe Bullock would know. After all, toward the end of last year, he was polling at 66 percent approval making him the country’s fourth most popular governor.

But he didn’t pretend to have the special recipe to fixing the Democratic party’s woes. The medicine Bullock prescribed was simple enough: Get off the computers and get out in the field.

“If how we’re approaching this is just data analytics and where the numbers are that we can get to that number that we need, and writing off the rest of either societies or geographic regions, or communities—It might be a way to win but it’s no way to govern,” he said.

Bullock noted that the last Democratic president to win in Montana was Bill Clinton in 1992 but that President Obama came close in 2008.

“He actually had a meaningful, meaningful presence here,” Bullock said of Obama, leaning forward to the edge of his chair brimming with excitement. “He showed up here!”

If only it were that easy.