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Why a GOP super PAC is bothering to attack Steve Bullock’s bid for president

Montana ads are more about denting his potential Senate prospects

A Republican attack ad aimed at Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination is more likely designed to hurt him if he runs for the Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock isn’t one of the leading Democratic contenders for the 2020 presidential nomination, but he’s learning how to turn a Republican attack into an asset for his campaign.

On May 29, the GOP-affiliated Senate Leadership Fund started a television ad campaign in the Missoula media market, according to Kantar/CMAG, and the message went straight to the point.

“Steve Bullock’s running for president while Montana is paying his salary. And paying for Montana Highway Patrol to travel on his out-of-state political trips,” the narrator says, as grainy, slow-motion video footage and plenty of capitalized red lettering move across the screen. “Like Bullock using a state plane to travel to campaign events 21 times, it’s not the first time Steve Bullock has taken advantage of Montana tax dollars for political gain.

“Would your boss pay for your next job search? Should Montana be paying for Steve Bullock’s?” the ad concludes.

Bullock didn’t waste any time informing his supporters of the Republicans’ attack. The same day the GOP ad first aired, his campaign sent out a fundraising email with the subject line: “Republican SuperPAC ATTACKS Steve Bullock.”

“Nathan, this is urgent: A Republican SuperPAC just launched a $150,000 ad campaign attacking Governor Bullock. This is one of the first times this year a Republican SuperPAC launched TV ads against any Democrat running for President,” the email read. “Why? Because they know that Governor Bullock is our best chance to win back the White House!!”

Wait, what?

“Steve Bullock is the only candidate for President who’s won a Trump state. He has a strong record of getting progressive things done — even in a red state. It’s a major reason why this huge SuperPAC made us their very first target. Governor Bullock poses a serious existential threat to everything big SuperPACs stand for,” the email continued, followed by a plea for $150,000. This is where things get tricky.

I don’t think the White House, the Republican National Committee, or GOP strategists view Bullock as a credible challenger to President Donald Trump at this stage of the race. I’m not even sure the president could pick Steve Bullock out of a lineup. But the governor is a very real threat as a potential Senate candidate.

If Bullock reverses course, ends his presidential campaign and decides to challenge GOP Sen. Steve Daines, that would be a game-changer for the Democrats’ math to a Senate majority. Currently, the Montana race is rated Solid Republican, and Daines is well-positioned to win re-election to a second term.

But with Bullock in the Senate race, Democrats would have a seventh takeover opportunity in their effort to gain four seats for a majority. That’s why SLF is attacking Bullock on television. Republicans want to drive up his negatives and essentially close the door behind him, preventing him from challenging Daines as he focuses on the Oval Office. It’s also a shot across the bow to other presidential contenders who may be coaxed to run for the Senate as a consolation prize.

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If Republicans felt threatened by Bullock’s presidential campaign, they wouldn’t be airing the ad in Missoula.

But Bullock and his team are wise to take advantage of the opportunity. According to Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, he has “lots of work to do” to meet the requirements for the September Democratic debates. He hasn’t even reached 65,000 unique donors, nor has he received at least 2 percent in any polls, putting him toward the back of the presidential pack.

Bullock needs significant help to rise another tier or two in the presidential race, and these GOP ads help him stand out in a field of candidates who aren’t getting similar attention from Republicans.

This could be a rare instance where everyone gets what they want.

Bullock can attract new support for his presidential campaign from Democratic donors sympathetic to him being attacked.

Republicans can start their Senate campaign against him while trying to keep him, and the race, on the sidelines of the fight for the majority.

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