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Montana Gov. Steve Bullock On How Democrats Can Win Over Voters In Red States


A week from tonight, Democratic presidential candidates hold their first debate over two nights. Montana Governor Steve Bullock will not be on the stage. Bullock says he is not letting that deter his long-shot White House bid. And he argues that as a Democrat who won statewide in Montana, he can help the party win back Republican-leaning voters.

NPR Politics Podcast host Scott Detrow has the latest from our series of interviews with presidential candidates in conjunction with Iowa Public Radio and New Hampshire Public Radio.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Governor Steve Bullock says one of the biggest adjustments to life as a presidential candidate is how many reporters are suddenly interested in watching you eat. Montana isn't exactly filled with major media markets, so he says he was a little surprised when he went to a brewery immediately after announcing his White House run.


STEVE BULLOCK: And there are eight cameras watching you drink that beer.

DETROW: That's part of running for president in 2019, even for candidates like Bullock, who most voters haven't heard of and who are struggling to hit 1% in polls of a very crowded field. When we sat down in Sioux City, Iowa, Bullock gave his straightforward pitch.


BULLOCK: I was on the ballot for reelection in 2016. Donald Trump took Montana by 20. I won by four. Twenty-five to 30% of my voters also voted for Donald Trump. And if we can't both bring out our base but also win back some of the places that we lost, we're not going to win this election.

DETROW: Bullock is in his second term as governor. He thinks his background could appeal to voters who are looking for a candidate who can beat Trump. But Bullock won't be on the debate stage because he didn't hit the polling or donor threshold set by the DNC.


DETROW: How much are you worried that that'll hurt your campaign?

BULLOCK: Well, I can only control the things that I can control. And I got into this, in some respects, some people would say late, even though, you know, (laughter) we're still 240 days away from any voter actually exercising his or her preference. I got into it late because I had to get my legislature over.

DETROW: The Montana Legislature only meets for 90 days every other year. During this year's session, Bullock got lawmakers to reauthorize a Medicaid expansion first passed in 2015.

Since Bullock makes appealing to Trump voters such a big part of his pitch, we asked him why he thought people went from voting for Barack Obama in 2012 to supporting Trump in '16. He blamed economic instability and the growing gap between the wealthy and everyone else.


BULLOCK: Washington, D.C., seems either captured by inaction or big money. I think Donald Trump tapped into something where folks didn't think the economy and the political system was working for them. Now, I don't think he's made it better for any of those individuals.

DETROW: He says the policies he and so many other Democrats are campaigning on would make things better - expanding health care, raising the minimum wage and, in Bullock's case, changing campaign finance laws. Bullock says the party needs to just do a better job of selling that message and doing so in the rural and Republican-leaning areas it neglected in 2016.


BULLOCK: If I look at the voters that voted for Donald Trump and voted for Bullock, they don't agree with me on every issue or every position. But I think that fundamentally, they believe that I'm going to be fighting to try to make their lives better.

DETROW: He won't be able to make that argument on the debate stage next week, but Bullock's campaign has announced it met the polling requirements to qualify for July's Democratic debate.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Sioux City, Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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