MTFP FILE PHOTO BY ELIZA WILEY
HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock remained noncommittal about his presidential aspirations during a wide-ranging interview on the Montana Lowdown podcast.
In an episode published March 12, Bullock continued to express interest in potentially joining the ever-growing list of 2020 Democratic hopefuls, but said he has more pressing priorities to address before he makes a decision.
Bullock, who is more than halfway through his second and final term as governor, said that before he decides whether to run for the nation’s highest office, he first wants to finish working with lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature to renew Medicaid expansion, fund infrastructure projects, and increase funding for preschool and higher education.
“I’ve been both traveling and talking about Montana and listening, but I’ve also said that the Legislature, doing the work here, comes first,” Bullock said. “For me right now, that’s as far as it goes.”
Some political observers say Bullock, a moderate Democrat who won reelection in 2016 in a state Republican President Donald Trump carried by more than 20 points, could appeal to rural and working-class voters in America’s heartland. Other pundits say Bullock would be a long shot in a crowded presidential primary field, but would be a serious contender if he were to challenge first-term incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines.
Bullock acknowledged that some in his party have urged him to challenge Daines, but he thinks there are other Democrats who could take that seat. Besides, he says, he doesn’t want that job.
“I’ve expressed all along [that] I just don’t have an interest in running for U.S. Senate,” Bullock said. “I think that my skill set, and what I’ve done, I just wouldn’t enjoy it, so I’d ruled it out.”
This isn’t the first time Bullock has faced a tough decision about his political future.
He called his previous position as the state’s attorney general his “dream job,” and said he wasn’t sure he wanted to run for governor in 2012.
“I so enjoyed being AG,” Bullock said. “Would I want to give up a job that I know I love for one that a) I didn’t know if I’d win, and b) would I enjoy it as much?”
Bullock said as he weighed whether to run for governor or for reelection as an incumbent attorney general, some in the Democratic Party establishment told him he “owed it to the state” to run for governor after Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer termed out of office.
Bullock said he thought it was “interesting” that the same groups that urged him to run for governor in 2012 had declined to support his first bid for attorney general in 2000. Bullock lost the 2000 attorney general primary election to current Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath, garnering just 30 percent of the vote.
This week lawmakers are set to start weighing competing measures for renewing Medicaid expansion. The Legislature approved the existing Medicaid expansion program, known as the HELP Act, in 2015, but that law is set to sunset in July unless lawmakers renew it this session.
Democrats want to renew the existing program, which extended health care coverage to nearly 100,000 low-income Montanans, with only a few changes.
A competing Republican proposal, which as of March 12 had yet to be introduced, could reduce the number of people who qualify for Medicaid coverage by adding work requirements and asset tests.
Bullock said he’s not in favor of making it more difficult for people to access Medicaid, and that the 2015 bill required significant compromise to pass.
“It was a big lift when we got this through in 2015,” Bullock said. “I mean, this was the time when the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity were mailing every household, saying … Barack Obama and Gov. Bullock are going to mess up your life through Obamacare.”
Bullock said that despite significant policy differences, Democrats and a handful of Republicans were able to forge a solution that he called “a model for the nation.”
“I mean, we know that seven out of 10 folks [covered under the expansion] are working. We know we had the greatest labor force increase in the nation as far as Medicaid labor force. So we built a good model.”
Bullock said he doesn’t want to “tear apart the gains we’ve made just for the sake of tearing them apart.”
“The vast majority of legislators … say we’ve got to get this done. It’s too important,” Bullock said of extending Medicaid expansion. “We haven’t lost a rural hospital. We have $300 million [in additional personal income to Montana’s economy]. We know that almost three out of every five businesses in our state have one or more of their employees on Medicaid expansion.”