Montana’s Gov. Bullock, with help from Native Americans, could best GOP Sen. Daines
Montana Gov. Bullock has a good chance of toppling the state's Republican senator. | Jose Luis Magana/AP

“We can’t write off parts of the country just because we didn’t do well there in 2016. As the only Democrat in the country to be re-elected statewide in a state Trump won, I know that firsthand. If we do, we’ll lose. And we’ll deserve to.”

That’s what Montana’s two-term Governor Steve Bullock believes. He won reelection in 2016 even as Donald Trump took Montana by 20 points, one of just three Democrats, and the only Democratic incumbent, to win a gubernatorial election in states Trump won.

Reflecting how much he means what he says is the Montana Democratic Party’s effort this year to register and mobilize thousands of Native Americans who can help tip the balance and push Republican Steve Daines out of office Nov. 3.

In Big Horn County, which contains portions of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, the poverty rate for Native Americans is nearly 30%, which is about 2 1/2 times higher than the poverty rate of non-Natives in the county. | Becky Bohrer/AP

At a national virtual Town Hall meeting sponsored by People’s World last Sunday, Sandi Luckey, executive director of Montana’s Democratic Party, described the mobilization going on among the state’s Indigenous people.

“We’ve been mounting a major effort to register unregistered members of all eight of our state’s Native American tribes,” she told the town hall participants. “The events included full-fledged pow pows, all with health safeguards, and all organized by Indigenous activists.” Given the closeness of many races in Montana it is possible that massive turnout of Indigenous people, who make up 7 percent of the state’s population, can tip the balance, she said.

Luckey pledges that her party is going beyond just reaching out to Native Americans to turn out to vote in this one election. She promised that the Democrats intend to recruit representation from each of the eight Native tribes and place them on the state’s Democratic Committee in permanent positions.

Alissa Snow,  the Native vote program director for the Montana Democratic Party, told the press in Montana recently, “My No. 1 issue is access to quality and affordable health care.” Snow said. “Then, of course, there’s the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic; these things worry me. I vote to build a better future for my daughters. I don’t want them to worry about the same issues I worry about.”

Bullock, who supports expanding the Affordable Care Act and adding to it a public option, is appealing to voters like Snow and so many others concerned about healthcare.

He is running against incumbent GOP Senator Steve Daines in a time of unprecedented political upsurge not just in Montana but across the entire country. If Bullock wins on Nov. 3, he’ll represent his state alongside fellow Democrat Jon Tester, who was reelected in the 2018 Blue Wave that swept over Montana and the country as a whole. In Montana, as elsewhere, progressives had to overcome an avalanche of right-wing attacks and Republican dark money spending.

Although both of the mostly rural state’s legislative houses are controlled by the GOP, Montana voters show a decidedly independent streak.

The Washington Post said the Montana Senate race “has transformed into a margin-of-error race that has helped put Senate control within reach.” It is one of half a dozen toss-up Senate races in the country, although optimists might expand the range of possible Democratic flips to ten or even a dozen if the “march to the polls” is as huge as the early voting suggests it will be. With enough grassroots support, the state could be poised to elect a second Democratic senator from Montana in 2020.

As a popular, reelected governor, Bullock’s chances should be good to be voted in as senator. The problem, an altogether too familiar one in American political life, is the influence of corporate money. Millions upon millions of dollars are being spent in negative attack ads against Bullock to save this seat for the GOP. Mitch McConnell and right-wing special interests like the Koch network are spending at least $10 million on blanketing the airwaves with lies and distortions to keep their grip on the Senate.

GOP megadonor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson gave $25 million to McConnell’s super PAC just in the month of June—83% of all the money the PAC received that month.

“The fact is Washington is broken,” Bullock says. “Corporate special interests and millionaire donors use their fortunes to buy influence while working people get left behind. I’m running to make Washington work more like Montana, and we’re building our campaign the right way, without any contributions from corporate PACs.”

Born and raised in the state, Bullock has a special appreciation and love for his Big Sky country. “Montanans have a healthy distrust of politicians. Always have and always will. But as we’ve shown over the last few months, it’s a place where people would do anything for their neighbor. It’s the Montana way.

Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Sandi Luckey, second from left, talked about the effort to register and mobilize Native American voters at a recent town hall meeting sponsored by People’s World.

“That’s the kind of attitude we need more of in Washington. Let’s bring it there.”

The senatorial candidate knows a thing or two about corporate special interests—actually, he knows a great deal. It was Bullock, as state attorney general, who attracted national attention by challenging the infamous Citizens United decision through his defense of Montana’s 100-year-old ban on corporate campaign expenditures. After winning in the Montana Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the State of Montana in a 5–4 decision.

Bullock announced his candidacy in March 2020, eliciting support from fellow Democrats across the country. Those who follow national politics with a magnifying glass will recall that earlier, for a few months in 2019, he had thrown his hat into the race for Democratic presidential nomination, suspending his campaign in early December 2019.

Who is Steve Bullock?

Now age 54, Bullock is a native Montanan. He went off to Southern California’s Claremont McKenna College and then to Columbia University Law School, earning his law degree in 1994.

He worked briefly for a New York City law firm before being hired in 1996 as chief legal counsel to Montana’s secretary of state. In 1997, he moved over to the state attorney general’s office, first as executive assistant attorney general, and later promoted to acting chief deputy attorney general and legislative director.

He ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for state attorney general in 2000. In 2001, he became an adjunct professor at George Washington University School of Law, later returning to his home state to open a private law practice in the state capital, Helena. Bullock was elected as Montana’s attorney general in 2008 and served until 2013.

Alissa Snow, Native vote program director for the Montana Democratic Party, said she votes so her daughters have a better future. | Courtesy of Alissa Snow

Bullock ran an activist attorney general’s office. He initiated the 24/7 Sobriety Program that requires repeat DUI offenders to take daily alcohol tests. He also pursued the railroad industry for monopolistic business practices and participated in a 16-state effort to urge the federal government to use antitrust authority against consolidation in agriculture. In the area of labor law, he took on the misclassification of employees as “independent contractors,” which allowed FedEx, among many other mega corporations, to avoid paying millions in state taxes and fees. His efforts resulted in changes by FedEx to comply with federal and state laws.

In the 2012 race to succeed Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Bullock was elected by a slim margin of 1.6 percentage points over Republican Rick Hill. As governor, he had the opportunity to appoint John Walsh, his Lieutenant Governor, as the new U.S. senator from Montana to replace Max Baucus, who had been appointed Ambassador to China in the Barack Obama administration. Bullock was re-elected to the governor’s office in 2016, winning against Republican Greg Gianforte.

In the May 2017 race for Montana’s U.S. Representative-at-Large, Gianforte was convicted of assault after his election-eve body-slamming attack on The Guardian’s political reporter Ben Jacobs. He was fined and sentenced to community service and anger management therapy. As part of his settlement, Gianforte donated $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which said it would use the funds to support the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. Gianforte won that race and was reelected in 2018. A businessman, he is considered the wealthiest person in the U.S. House. This year there is also a tight and closely watched race brewing for the Montana governorship, between the present Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney and Gianforte.

In 2018, Bullock was appointed chairman of the National Governors Association. According to a 2016 survey by Morning Consult, Bullock enjoyed a 66% approval rating and a 19% disapproval rating, making him the most popular Democratic governor in the United States, and the fourth-most popular overall.

Bullock is considered a “centrist” and “moderate liberal.” On healthcare, he would protect, improve, and strengthen the Affordable Care Act, favoring a public option along with presidential candidate Joe Biden. He does not favor a single-payer system. He is unequivocally pro-choice, in 2013 receiving a 100% rating from NARAL.

A strong advocate of LGBTQ rights, in 2015 he became the first sitting governor in Montana history to officiate a same-gender wedding.

Bullock has been recognized and endorsed by the AFL–CIO and the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers for his support of workers’ rights and public education. He opposes “right-to-work” legislation, which allows workers to pay no union dues while still benefitting from union-negotiated labor contracts. Montana remains the only state in the Upper Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. that does not have RTW legislation on the books. None of Montana’s neighboring states provides the same level of protection for labor unions.

On January 18, 2018, Bullock filed an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of allowing labor unions to make “agency fees” mandatory. He opposed the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME, saying, “The U.S. Supreme Court just overturned 40 years of settled law that workers, employers, and unions across the country rely on. All the more ironic, the 5–4 decision cited Citizens United as a reason to do so”—ironic because Bullock had opposed that phony “free speech” case as well.

He has continued his efforts to get big money out of politics. As governor, he signed into law a bill requiring greater transparency from dark money groups. He also requires government contractors to disclose any dark money contributions they make and took on the IRS to demand full transparency from tax-exempt organizations.

Aside from expanding access to affordable health care and protecting public lands, Governor Bullock has also helped the state’s rural hospitals to survive and lowered insurance premiums for people in the state.

In this race for the Senate in such polarized times, Bullock and other Democrats are not only running against Republicans but in a referendum against Donald Trump and the whole edifice of Trumpism. He seeks to “end McConnell’s dominance in Washington.” As governor, Bullock made it clear where he stands:

The governor explained: “I want to be able to look into the eyes of each and every soldier and airman, every child and every spouse, and tell them their mission is absolutely necessary. These ongoing atrocities against immigrant families are anything but.”

Who’s he running against?

In quite likely the first-ever Steve vs. Steve U.S. Senate race, Steve Bullock is running against the incumbent, Republican Steve Daines.

Daines has voted five times to gut protections for people with pre-existing conditions and to expand “junk” insurance plans which are not required to cover pre-existing conditions. Like the president—and despite the first two years of the Trump administration’s perfect trifecta of controlling the Executive Branch and the two houses of Congress—Daines and his fellow Republicans have yet to offer any alternative at all to the ACA, except its demise, and in particular, no health care plan that wouldn’t reduce current protections for people with pre-existing conditions. Having no health care plan in place would leave Americans prey to the law of the insurance jungle.

In a recent interview with Yellowstone Public Radio, Senator Daines once again tried to downplay his long public record of trying to repeal protections for Montanans with pre-existing conditions. He spoke rhetorically of protecting Montanans with pre-existing conditions, pointing to the so-called “Protect Act,” an empty Republican bill that “would do little to protect people with pre-existing conditions” if the partisan lawsuit to repeal the ACA succeeds. Daines voted with his 100% partisan fellow Republicans to rush Amy Coney Barrett onto the U.S. Supreme Court, where within the next few days the fate of the ACA will be weighed.

Aside from working tirelessly to repeal Obamacare, Daines defends the whole Trump agenda—tear-gassing of Black Lives Matter protesters and applauding Trump’s “bold” leadership on the coronavirus pandemic. He has done nothing useful to alleviate the pandemic in Montana.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Gov. Bullock has supported a statewide mandate for wearing masks during the pandemic, but in such a largely rural and conservative state, it has been next to unenforceable. Until September, the death toll in the state had been 140, but as heightened infectivity spread to rural states, that number doubled by the end of October. Bullock has lamented the fact that even local health boards have members who “are trying to politicize this virus.” Among those who have disregarded physical distancing protocols have been Christian congregations.

In at least one case, the Liberty Fellowship, its leader, Chuck Baldwin, has been identified by the Montana Human Rights Network as “the unofficial reverend of the militia movement.” Bullock is concerned that if Montanans in one contentious area, Flathead County, with 100,000 people, continue to flout recommended controls and precautions, “Schools will have to close, parents will be out of the workforce, businesses will be hurt and the hospital will run out of bed capacity.” Daines has kept quiet, obviously not wishing to offend his electoral base.

Sen. Steve Daines is in danger of losing his seat on Nov. 3. | Susan Walsh/AP

No one heard a peep out of him when, in mid-August, GOP mega-donor Postmaster General DeJoy had dozens of blue USPS mailboxes removed without explanation from cities and towns across Montana, refusing to return them all in a blatant act of voter suppression.

By contrast, Gov. Bullock said, “In a big, rural state like Montana, we rely on a functioning postal service more than most to make sure our bills, letters, prescriptions, and mail-in ballots get delivered on time.”

Other relevant information and perspectives on the race can be found here:

“Daines Upholds Promise to Montanans to Repeal Obamacare,” Steve Daines United States Senator for Montana, December 3, 2015.

What about the polls?

This race is very tight and in a state with such a small electorate, it may be decided by a very few votes. Getting out the vote is crucial. According to NBC and other polling averages last week, Daines is at 48% and Bullock at 47%, although the spread on Trump is much wider—51% for Trump and 43% for Biden. Montana could be an election-night cliffhanger.

“The way we win,” Bullock says, “is by working together and talking directly to the people of Montana about our vision for our country. That’s how I’ve won three statewide elections in Montana. Everyone deserves a chance at a better future and I know we can help make that a reality if we win this race.”

Steve Bullock’s latest campaign ad can be viewed here.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. His latest project is translating the nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, the first volumes available from International Publishers NY.