Steve Bullock would love for everyone to know that he’s been elected statewide three times as a Democrat in Montana, a state Donald Trump won by 20 points. But getting that message out is going to be a bit more difficult than Bullock planned, since he won’t be on the first Democratic presidential primary debate stage in Miami later this month, barely falling short of the Democratic National Committee’s polling threshold. Bullock, who only got into the race in May after his legislative session ended and he reauthorized Montana’s Medicaid expansion, didn’t make the cut after the party decided not to count an early Washington Post/ABC poll in its qualifying criteria. Then, on the last day he might have snuck in, he came one respondent short in a Nevada poll. He’s not happy about it.
Your campaign manager sent a letter to the DNC this week making the case that you should be allowed into the debates. Did any part of you, over the last few days, think you’d be able to convince them to let you in?
Yeah, I mean, we certainly wanted to be able to continue to make our case to the DNC, and by the rules they made, out of qualifying polls, it sure looks like I should be in. But putting aside those early polls and party rules, the bigger point I’ve wanted to make is certainly, you know, I tried to make the decision to wait until Medicaid expansion was done, and I might not register as much in some of these other polls, but it was important to do. And I don’t regret waiting one bit.
Would you have tried to figure out a way to move up the timing of the expansion reauthorization or launched your campaign during the legislative session if you knew there was a chance this would happen?
Well, those negotiations were almost down to the end. I walked into that legislative session with tobacco companies killing reauthorization with $26 million, so I walked in with a legislature saying, “Oh, voters have already decided that a hundred thousand Montanans don’t need health care.” So that was Day One. And a $400 million infrastructure bill. We hadn’t been able to pass infrastructure, a bill like that, in over a decade. That came together at the end. You know, I had to job to do. I can’t look backwards, but doing that job — giving people health care, giving people working infrastructure — had to be paramount. I certainly understood that getting in late I wouldn’t be on TV as much, I wouldn’t be talking to guys like you. It might hurt my standing in later polls, but I’ve always tried in the time I’ve been in public office to put people over politics every single time, and I think that’s one of the reasons that I’ve won three statewide elections in Montana, and it’s how I’m going to run this race for president. And I think that’s what people are looking for in a president right now.
So what do you make of the argument from the DNC that they’ve been clear about the criteria from the start, that this shouldn’t have been a surprise?
Well, I don’t want to quibble on polls, but yeah, the one to be excluded was a Washington Post/ABC poll, and it was an open-ended poll, which is arguably harder to qualify. And they said, “This couldn’t be legitimate because some Democratic voters voted for Donald Trump.” Well I think we should probably be asking ourselves, “Why are some Democratic-identified voters voting for Donald Trump? How’re we going to win back places that we’ve lost?” Not checking off Washington Post/ABC polls.
Have you talked to DNC chairman Tom Perez, or tried to sway him?
I spoke with Perez back in March about the criteria and where I stand in these polls.
So what now? You won’t be in Miami, so what do the next few weeks look like for you?
There are still 230-some days before any voter expresses a preference. You can expect me to actually be talking to voters during those debates. Probably in the early states.
Are you going to make a concerted push to qualify for the third debate, in September, which is the next one you can make?
I’ll continue focusing — we have been, certainly — on spreading out the message, helping people understand I’m the only Democrat in the country to get elected in a Trump state, certainly in a statewide race. We need to win back some of these places that we’ve lost and get meaningful progressive stuff done.
So you’ve talked a lot about the message Democrats are sending nationally. And there’s been a decent amount of commentary in the last day about the message that gets sent when the one candidate who’s won statewide in a Trump state isn’t on the stage …
I think when you look at that stage, it’s disappointing that it’s missing someone who has had success in a Trump state, who’s had success in getting legislation through. Look, we have to win places both urban and rural. I have a connection with, and an ability in, rural areas. So I get that folks want to hurry up and get to Trump. I think people feel that urgency, but we’re 235 days out and we can’t lose sight of the big picture. We’ve gotta win back some of those places! We’ve gotta be able to govern! And if we exclude those places from the process, we might lose those places forever. We can’t let that happen.
I think elections oughta be decided by voters, not party leaders. And I also think that for all of the noise to this point, you know, in my seven stops in Iowa early this week, it was clear voters are going to want to make the right decision, not necessarily just the fast decision.
Are you concerned about the criteria for the third debate? It’s clear they’re trying to narrow the field.
Yeah. I’ll control everything that I can. It’s always been in the past — even in large fields — there’s a reason why early states are that engaged. And they’ve always been what narrows the field down, not some party rules. But, you know, I’ll control everything I can and keep moving.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.