Image Credit: New York Times/The Postrider Illustration
The next two Democratic debates will take place on July 30 and July 31 with largely the same cast of characters from the first two in June, save for one loss and one addition: with California Congressman Eric Swalwell out, Montana Governor Steve Bullock is in. Bullock will be the only newcomer to the debates from the last go-around, which makes him the only candidate with an opening to make a first impression, as well as a unique opportunity to seize it by playing up his characteristic style that has been relatively absent in the primary thus far.
Bullock joined the race a bit late, on May 14th, which put him behind the curve in terms of fundraising and polling, precluding him from qualifying for the first round of debates. He has stood by his decision to enter the race late due to his commitments as governor, which included working with the Montana legislature up until their session ended at the end of April. This allowed him to focus on expanding Medicaid in Montana with bipartisan support, no easy feat in a state where only 36% of voters went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, as well as securing rules blocking foreign governments from spending money in state elections, a college tuition freeze, and infrastructure spending. This late entry tracks with his governing ideology and how he has been pitching himself to voters ever since: as a moderate Democrat, a dedicated public servant, and, considering that he’s the only one of the current 2020 hopefuls who won a statewide race in a state that Trump also carried in 2016, an electorally-viable candidate. Bullock has proven himself able to appeal to and win rural voters while standing steadfast by marriage equality, Medicaid expansion, net neutrality, campaign finance reform, abortion rights, energy consciousness, and gun control in a very Republican-leaning state. As of the second quarter of 2019, Morning Consult has him at a 54% approval rating in Montana, which makes him the 15th most popular sitting governor in the United States.
Bullock has positioned himself in a manner similar to that of South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg: in line with the moderate Democratic mainstream and able to reach out and win voters in rural districts that threw Trump the election three years ago. But despite the fact that, unlike Buttigieg, Bullock has held a major statewide office, Buttigieg is the one with momentum. With his entrance into the debates, Bullock has a small opening to set off a spark for his campaign, and the lineup could not be more perfectly suited for him to do so.
On July 30, Bullock will be joined by (bear with me here…) Buttigieg, former Maryland Congressman John Delaney, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and author Marianne Williamson. The major candidates in this debate are Warren and Sanders, both of whom are on the left end of the Democratic Party, in stark opposition to where Bullock stands. Unlike the almost identically-minded and similarly-placed (though quite a bit nerdier) Hickenlooper, who was overshadowed by Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and instant Internet sensation Williamson in his first debate, Bullock can make Hickenlooper’s exact point — that he was the “one person up here who’s actually done the big progressive things everyone else is talking about,” let alone in a purple state — while being the only fresh face. And that was a valid point, if one left to a relatively uncharismatic campaigner who was stuck between the eye-grabbing Williamson and outright confusing Andrew Yang.
But Bullock has the chance to take that argument and champion it. He is one of the few state executives in the race, and Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Hickenlooper are struggling to even scrape the bottom of the barrel of support needed to carry on. And as the only newcomer on stage, Bullock may get just the eye draw from audiences he needs. At this point Williamson is, as they say, a “stale meme,” and the exciting rematch of the Biden-Harris showdown will take place during debate night two. Bullock is arguably the most experienced and accomplished candidate and executive who will be on stage on July 30 (other than Hickenlooper, who was in all fairness a two-term governor of a state over five times bigger than Bullock’s), and he has more credibility than anyone else that night to explain why he favors a pragmatic and moderate approach to policy and on how to appeal to independent flyover state voters. Bullock has an opportunity to come out swinging on that point and come across as the new and surprising adult in the room with that homey, down-to-earth, paper route-riding charm that has made his story so inspirational.
If he is able to rise above the technicalities that Warren and Sanders will be arguing about, and above the Millennial and wonk-charming of Buttigieg and O’Rourke, Bullock has a chance to go from the odd man out to a household name – and make a compelling argument for why he is a candidate who can win a national election the rest of them could not.