By Sharon Bernstein
HELENA, Mont. (Reuters) - Democratic Governor Steve Bullock of Montana jumped into the 2020 presidential race on Tuesday, touting his ability to work with Republicans and promising to take on campaign finance reform on his first day in office.
Bullock, 53, won re-election in conservative Montana in 2016, making him the only candidate of the more than 20 major Democratic presidential contenders to win statewide election in a state that President Donald Trump carried in 2016. Trump won Montana by 20 percentage points.
"There’s only one person in the field that’s actually won in a state that Donald Trump won, and there’s only one that’s gotten progressive things done in governing a state that's controlled by Republicans," Bullock said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday after announcing his bid.
Wearing jeans and cowboy boots at a campaign office so new there were no signs outside, Bullock called for an end to so-called dark money political contributions and touted the state's expansion of Medicaid.
"I think we can both defeat Donald Trump and get this country working again," he said.
Bullock has barely registered in opinion polls and will face challenges fundraising against higher-profile party rivals such as former Vice President Joe Biden and Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Bullock presents himself as a potential unifier in a party torn between those who prefer a pragmatist who can appeal to moderates and independents, and those who want a fresh face who can energize the party's increasingly diverse and left-leaning voters.
He has made campaign finance reform a cornerstone of his agenda as governor. Among various actions, he signed an executive order requiring many state government contractors to report political donations.
At his campaign launch in a high school science classroom in the state capital of Helena, Bullock said he would sign a similar executive order on his first day as president.
"Our politics are dominated by those who can write the biggest checks and drown out people's voices," he said.
To set himself apart in a crowded field, Bullock points to his successes as governor in Montana, where Republicans control the state legislature, and his ability to forge compromises on bills to expand Medicaid, bolster pay equity for women and protect public lands.
Charismatic and telegenic, he talks about Democratic issues without using buzzwords that might inflame Republicans. In discussing healthcare, he says Trump has worked to "destabilize" care for millions, but does not mention the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.
He favors a public option under which consumers could pay into the federal Medicare or Medicaid healthcare programs, but has not jumped on the Medicare-for-All bandwagon.
A gun owner and hunter, Bullock said he supported universal background checks for purchasers of firearms and so-called red flag laws to allow family members to ask a judge to temporarily remove firearms from people in danger of harming themselves or others.
Last week, he vetoed a bill to allow public school employees to become armed marshals, a measure some gun rights groups say would allow armed adults to fight off mass shooters at schools.
The son of a single mother, Bullock worked his way through college and took out loans to finish law school. He served as Montana's attorney general before being elected to his first term as governor in 2012.
When he won re-election in 2016, he captured 13 counties in Montana, more than twice the number Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton carried.
Bullock heads next to Iowa. He has traveled frequently to early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire in the last year to lay the groundwork for a campaign, but he had promised to wait until Montana's legislative session ended to make his plans for the White House known. The Montana legislature adjourned in late April.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Additional reporting and writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Shumaker)