A popular two-term Democratic legislator in a solidly red state would seem an ideal candidate to challenge an incumbent Republican for higher office. So why isn’t Montana Governor Steve Bullock running for the Senate?
When Bullock recently suspended his long-shot presidential campaign, it wasn’t his withdrawal from the heated race for the Democratic presidential nomination that disappointed many onlookers. That letdown came with what he didn’t say — that he would channel his political ambitions into a run against Senator Steve Daines, a Republican.
"Governor Bullock will continue to faithfully and effectively serve the people of Montana as their governor,” said Galia Slayen, Bullock’s campaign spokesperson, in a statement. “While he plans to work hard to elect Democrats in the state and across the country in 2020, it will be in his capacity as a Governor and a senior voice in the Democratic Party — not as a candidate for U.S. Senate.”
Presumably, Bullock ran for president to have an impact for and beyond his Montana base, but there’s more than one way to serve this country beyond winning the White House. Democrats have their eye on denting the GOP’s Senate majority, and Bullock, a moderate Democrat, has already proved his ability to win statewide office in his conservative home state. Should he join the race, Bullock would likely be a serious contender for a seat that Democrats need.
It’s already too late for another one-time Democratic presidential aspirant to join the Senate race in his state. Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, crashed the national stage last year in a closely watched race against Republican Senator Ted Cruz. O’Rourke narrowly lost that contest, and when he ended his presidential bid last month, many hoped he would considered another Senate run, this time against Republican Senator John Cornyn.
Even though recent polls had 58 percent of Texas Democrats touting O’Rourke as their candidate of choice, he declined to run. (He is, however, encouraging his donors to help flip the Texas House of Representatives.)
Contrast that with the Hickenlooper example.
Shortly after former two-term Colorado governor John Hickenlooper dropped out of the Democratic presidential race, in August, he launched his Senate campaign against vulnerable Republican incumbent Cory Gardner. In his announcement, Hickenlooper said, "I’ve always said Washington was a lousy place for a guy like me who wants to get things done, but this is no time to walk away from the table. I know changing Washington is hard, but I want to give it a shot. I’m not done fighting for the people of Colorado.”
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, of course, also thought the Senate was a worthwhile backup plan after failing to win the presidency. But for the progressive agenda, Hickenlooper’s move is especially urgent – this is indeed no time to walk away from the table: Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s stranglehold on the chamber has made it impossible for important House bills to get near the floor — including reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, climate change legislation, and an amendment expanding protections offered by the Civil Rights Act. Democrats need to win at least four seats for a Senate majority. Bullock’s candidacy would put Montana’s seat in play.
In a Politico interview, Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico said, “If it was important enough to run for president . . . the most powerful thing [Bullock] could do to help the country and his state, I believe, would be to run for the US Senate.” Bullock, like Hickenlooper, should set an example for future candidates from both parties of what true leadership looks like. And other candidates should consider the same in coming elections. Such examples might even start to restore voters’ confidence that candidates mean what they say about changing the country for the better and will put serving the public above the view from the Oval Office.