HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock pulled the plug on his long-shot presidential campaign Monday morning, saying it’s become clear he can’t “break through to the top tier” of Democratic candidates.
Bullock announced his decision with a statement to CNN at 4:20 a.m. Montana time.
“While the concerns that propelled me to enter in the first place have not changed, I leave this race filled with gratitude and optimism, inspired and energized by the good people I’ve had the privilege of meeting over the course of the campaign,” he said.
His presidential campaign spokeswoman, Galia Slayen, also said Bullock will not be challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines in 2020 – just as Bullock has been saying for many months.
Bullock, 53, who didn’t enter the race until May, had pitched himself as a moderate Democrat who could win in Trump country. He bet big on making inroads in Iowa, the state with the nation’s first presidential nominating caucus or primary on Feb. 3.
But despite many trips to the Hawkeye State, Bullock didn’t gain any traction, barely registering on the latest Iowa Poll by the Des Moines Register.
“There’s no evidence, despite all the time he’s spent (in Iowa), that he made any dent in public opinion,” Montana State University political scientist David Parker told MTN News Monday.
Parker, a former analyst for MTN, said moderate voters in the presidential nominating states appear to be sticking with former Vice President Joe Biden, or gravitating toward South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
The lead political reporter for the Register, Brianne Pfannenstiel, also told MTN News Monday that polls and her own conversations with Iowa Democratic caucus-goers’ indicate that their top priority is beating Donald Trump – and that an outlier like Bullock maybe isn’t worth the gamble.
“I think there is just a nervousness among Democrats right now about going out on a limb for a candidate,” she said. “So I think they’re gravitating to some of these bigger names.”
The latest Iowa Poll had a relative newcomer on top among Iowa caucus-goers – Buttigieg – but right behind him were the likes of Biden and U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
The poll also had 70 percent of Iowa Democratic caucus-goers undecided, but then asked them who they were considering as their second and third choice. Bullock scored poorly there as well.
“Even with all of those metrics, he was polling only at 8 percent,” Pfannenstiel said. “So only 8 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers say he was even on their minds at this point. That’s a really tough number to come out of.”
Bullock campaigned in Iowa as recently as a week ago and was in Iowa on Sunday, when he informed his campaign staff there that he would be dropping out.
He returned to Montana Monday afternoon, met by two dozen supporters at the Helena airport. But his office said he wouldn’t be available for interviews until Wednesday.
Bullock cannot run for re-election as governor because of term limits. Next year will be his last as governor, a post he won in 2012 and then again in 2016, extending Democrats’ hold on the Montana governor’s seat to 16 years.
His accomplishments include the passage and reauthorization of Medicaid expansion, which extended government-funded health coverage to nearly 100,000 low-income Montanans, and a major campaign-finance law in 2015, that attempts to shed light on so-called “dark money” by outside political groups.
It’s not clear what Bullock’s political future holds.
Parker said he expects Bullock will be campaigning for whoever ends up as the Democratic presidential nominee, with a possible eye toward a spot in a Democratic presidential administration.
Bullock himself hasn’t said publicly what he might do – other than not run for the U.S. Senate.
Four Democrats already have said they’re running to challenge Daines in 2020, but none has run for statewide office before or has had much exposure to voters.