Montana Governor Steve Bullock has officially left the presidential primary on December 2nd, and while many Democrats are cheering about the field narrowing, many are frustrated with the Governor’s decision to not run for the senate seat against the incumbent senator. For some background on the Governor’s presidential run, all you really need to know was that he never polled that well and only received the endorsement of one member of Congress – and not a single endorsement from a Governor. Needless to say, his hopes of becoming president were not going to be fulfilled next year. However, there have been charges from some Democrats that he wasted time on a presidential run rather than running in the Senatorial race in Montana against incumbent Republican Senator Steve Daines. Many people saw him as the only candidate who could beat the incumbent senator next year, but is there any proof that he could win? Well… not really.
Many people who are encouraging Bullock to run for the Senate cite his approval ratings. While it is true that Bullock does have a higher net-approval rating that Daines – Bullock has a +22% approval rating while Daines has a +16% approval rating according to the Morning Consult – they are not comparable. Bullock is in an executive role in a state with a Republican-controlled legislature whereas Daines is a legislator in Washington.
Some of Bullock’s policies will not be passed in Montana because he is having to work with a legislature that is completely controlled by the other party. This helps Bullock because policies that are unpopular among Republican voters are not likely to be passed in the state legislature. Another reason why approval ratings do not show that Bullock would be competitive is because the governor’s approval ratings are actually declining. When Steve Bullock was up for reelection in 2016, he had a net approval rating of +47% according to the Morning Consult. That year he was only reelected by a margin of roughly 50-46 against then-activist Greg Gianforte.
Steve Bullock would not only have to face an incumbent who is popular, but he will also have to contend with the fact that Senate races are more polarized than gubernatorial elections. In the 2016 Presidential election, every state with a Senate seat up chose the senator and president from the same party. This is not to say that this will happen next year, but it does mean that Bullock would face a steep challenge in taking down the incumbent while Trump carries the state easily. Even in the 2018 senate races, only one state flipped from red to blue that Clinton did not carry (Arizona) and the shift in margin was only 6 points. Compare this to Montana, where Trump won by 20 points, and it is easy to see how Bullock will face significant odds in flipping the seat.
Another argument that is made about why Bullock should run is that Montana recently elected a Democrat to the Senate just last year. While this is true, doing a little digging in the race also shows that Jon Tester probably got lucky. Tester’s approval rating was decently high (+15% approval rating according to the Morning Consult) in the months leading up to his reelection and he raised more money than his opponent did by $14.4 million, but he only won the race against Montana Auditor Matt Rosendale by 3.5 points. Bullock’s margin in the governor race in 2016 was higher than Tester’s reelection margin despite the fact that Tester ran in a much better environment. Tester raised nearly $20 million in his reelection campaign, so imagine how much money Bullock would have to raise in order to take down one of the state’s sitting senators? He would have to raise much more money than Tester was able to raise, and the money donated to Bullock’s Senate race could be used in other seats that are much more likely to flip. Remember that Montana elected and reelected controversial representative Greg Gianforte (the person that Bullock defeated in 2016). If Gianforte is able to win reelection despite all his controversies, then how will Bullock defeat a sitting senator with no controversies? The answer is that Bullock would not be able to.
Some may question what the point of this article is. Bullock has already stated that he will not run for the senate seat. However, many have stated that Bullock is foolish for not wanting to challenge Daines for his Senate seat. In reality though, Bullock may have looked at the odds of winning the election and decided that running may be a waste of time and energy because it is not likely to flip. Senator Daines would benefit from presidential election turnout with Trump being on the ticket and overall being the incumbent with a decent approval rating in a red state. The only benefit of Bullock getting in the race would be to reduce the margin, but at what cost? Wasting financial resources on Montana is not going to be worth it when there are several better targets that will actually help Democrats take control of the senate.