Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is showing increasing signs he is getting serious about a White House bid. On Saturday, the two-term governor visited with voters and Democratic Party officials in Iowa for the second day of his trip to the key early-voting state.
Since he began weighing a 2020 bid, Bullock has made five trips to the Hawkeye State, according to the Associated Press. The 52-year-old is being touted as a candidate with political support in a red state, and one who could help strengthen the Democratic Party's showing in rural areas.
Bullock, who won a second term in 2016 by edging out a GOP challenger in a state where President Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by 20 points, has tried to frame himself as a bipartisan leader. He previously served as Montana's attorney general, and holds the governorship of a state where Republicans dominate the legislature.
Bullock, who declined CNBC's interview requests, is seen as progressive on most bread and butter issues such as health care and education, but changed his views on gun control just last year. Here are some key issues he's likely to run on as the field of Democratic presidential candidates continues to grow.
Bullock has been a big proponent of infrastructure spending — roads, bridges, water and sewer lines — in urban and rural areas in his state, including a new $290 million program he's pushing legislators to approve. It would be funded by a mix of cash and new bonds.
In previous sessions of the legislature, Republicans have turned down infrastructure plans by the governor. Still, the new proposal by and large appears to have more support. It includes infrastructure grants for areas experiencing different impacts from coal, oil, or gas development.
Meantime, Montana's economy remains strong, and the state unemployment rate recently dipped below the national rate. Yet some Republicans and business leaders in the state are critical of Bullock's leadership, and claim things could be even better if the governor didn't stand in the way of mining projects that could bring jobs and millions of dollars in new revenues.
"He proposes to spend more money on daycare, more money on Medicaid, and more money on infrastructure but there are no real proposals to grow our economy and grow the money base," said Republican state Sen. Fred Thomas, Majority Leader of the Montana Senate. "He just wants to raise taxes."
The Democratic governor pushed for bipartisan Medicaid expansion in 2015 that allowed thousands of additional low-income Montana residents to access health care. But that expansion is scheduled to expire in June, and some Republicans in the legislature are demanding major changes to the current program.
Bullock has been pushing the legislature to reauthorize the program after Montana voters defeated a tobacco tax ballot initiative in November. The plan that would have raised revenue for health care services.
In the state legislature, there are competing proposals to tackle the Medicaid expansion. One plan pushed by Republicans would tighten eligibility by adding work requirements, boost premiums and require drug-testing.
Bullock has complained that modifications could increase administrative costs of the overall program, and even hurt rural hospitals, since thousands of people could get kicked off their coverage by adding stricter rules. In the end, some believe Bullock may have to agree to some changes to satisfy even moderate Republicans.
The governor has emphasized early childhood education, including proposing a Head Start public preschool program in his budget for the current legislative session. He tried two previous times to get more funding for government-funded preschool education and in 2017 had to settle for a pilot program.
There's been opposition from some lawmakers because of the way he wants to fund the new plan, via taxes on hotels, rental cars, and liquor.
At the same time, Bullock is pushing for more money for higher education, including to help students returning for retraining after losing jobs. He also advocates a living wage for teachers.
Bullock has spoken on multiple occasions about the need for campaign finance reform and the danger of dark money flooding American elections. As governor, he signed an executive order last June that requires contractors to disclose dark money spending in elections.
He has a connection to a landmark court case involving dark money. Back in 2010, Bullock was the top law enforcement officer in Montana when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling on Citizens United, a campaign finance case. Bullock wrote the brief to uphold the state's longstanding citizen initiative banning corporate campaigning.
"Campaign finance affects every single American, from the halls of Congress to the kitchen tables in Montana," Bullock wrote in a tweet Feb. 7. "We must keep fighting against the out-sized influence corporations and special interests have on our democracy – Americans deserve no less."
In August 2018, Bullock announced support for a ban on semiautomatic weapons to reduce gun violence in America — a major shift of his position and one seen as a signal of his presidential ambitions. He made the announcement on CNN, but later clarified by saying he didn't support collecting weapons from hunters, or law-abiding owners.
Not surprisingly, his support of a ban led to criticism from gun-rights support groups and charges he was out of touch with voters in Montana, which is known for hunting and some of the most permissive gun laws in the nation. Bullock said at the time he supported it to reduce gun violence.
As state attorney general in 2009, Bullock initially opposed efforts to reinstate the assault weapons ban that the Obama administration was considering at the time.
"These one-size-fits-all gun laws might be popular in some parts of the country, but they don't work for Montana," he said in a statement back in 2009 supporting the stance of the state's two Democratic senators.