Campaigns

Path to defeat Trump ‘doesn’t flow through the coast,’ Bullock tells teachers group

Despite sagging poll numbers, Montana governor forges ahead with 2020 presidential pitch

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, center, greets Randi Weingarten, left, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Darrell Capwell, before a town hall at the AFT on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Montana governor and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Steve Bullock didn’t qualify for the debate stage in September, and he is polling near the bottom of the 20 remaining White House hopefuls.

But at the American Federation of Teachers headquarters in Washington, D.C., Bullock said Thursday he can win back Trump voters from the American heartland while retaining support in traditional liberal strongholds. The self-described populist moderate with executive experience spent time taking questions from the audience focused on education issues. 

Participants asked Bullock about public school funding and teacher pay, whether segregation in urban school systems was increasing, and if he would work to eliminate standardized testing, which many education advocates say unfairly disadvantages poor students and some minority groups.

Bullock does not believe in canceling existing student loan debt, but he has long been an advocate for investing in publicly funded early childhood education.

On Thursday, he attributed the segregation of the Washington school system in part on the privatization of public education — receiving generous applause for his answer.

“People were very impressed. People in that room — he resonated," AFT president Randi Weingarten said.

“I want our members to engage with all of these candidates, figure out who they love, who they resonate with, whose campaign they want to sign up to volunteer for,” she said. “Right now, we're just in the process of making sure our members know who's running.”

The crowd of roughly 80 people clapped with extra vigor when Bullock took a swipe at Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a pariah among education professionals for her support of school vouchers and the privatization.

“The idea that would have somebody run the Department of Education that's not an educator is foolish. It's absolutely foolish,” Bullock said.

Take back the Michigans

The Montanan spent time Thursday telling the audience on how he is the best person to take the White House. Democrats’ path to victory in the general election “doesn’t flow through the coast,” he said.

“Anybody that thinks this is going to be an easy election, I’d love you to visit a lot of parts of the country that you might not see,” he said.

Bullock won his 2016 reelection bid in Montana by less than 4 points on the same day Trump carried the state by 20 points.

More than a quarter of the Montanans who voted for Bullock for governor in 2016 also voted for Trump, he said, suggesting he can energize that sector of the electorate in key swing states.

“We’ve got to get people to vote for us — not just against” Trump, Bullock said.

“We’ve got to make sure whoever we nominate can not only win those places that Democrats always win but also take back the Michigans, the Wisconsins and the Pennsylvanias,” he said, listing three states that helped  Trump secure his Electoral College victory in 2016. “This is about math at the end of the day.”

Bullock has made rooting out the influence of money and corporate interests on politics a central message of his presidential campaign. On Thursday, he again touted a 2015 law he enacted in Montana that requires outside political groups to publish their donors and ad expenditures.

But Bullock, along with several other centrist Democratic candidates, is polling at less than 1 percent nationwide, according to Real Clear Politics.

Some Democrats have urged Bullock to follow former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and drop out of the presidential field and challenge an incumbent Republican senator in 2020.

Democrats need a net gain of four seats in the Senate to have a majority in the Senate in 2021, or three seats if they win the White House. 

Bullock has been adamant that a 2020 run against Montana GOP Sen. Steve Daines is not in the cards. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 2020 Montana Senate race Solid Republican, though that could change if Bullock entered the Democratic primary field.

For most of his presidential campaign, Hickenlooper was equally dismissive about running against GOP Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado. But a week after his exit, he announced he would challenge Gardner.

Inside Elections rates the 2020 Colorado Senate race a Tossup.

Bullock has until March 9 to file to run for Senate in Montana.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.