Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is under a tremendous amount of pressure these days.
Not only is the former Democratic presidential candidate now locked in one of the most hotly contested U.S. Senate races in the country, but he’s closing out his campaign just as the number of people in Montana who are infected with, hospitalized for and dying of coronavirus have surged to all-time highs. At least 28,000 people in Montana have been infected, and more than 300 have died of COVID-19.
Montana, as of this writing, is ranked fourth among all states for coronavirus infection rates, as well.
With both the elections and the infections coming to a head, Bullock’s handling of the pandemic in his state has become a bigger issue in the Senate race’s closing weeks.
Bullock, who is term-limited as he finishes his eighth year as governor, faces incumbent U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, in the Senate contest. Outside groups have poured a tremendous amount of money into the race, which could potentially determine partisan control of the upper chamber. Recent polls
show Bullock and Daines in a statistical tie (although most polls show Daines in the lead).
So far, reports
Mike Dennison, the chief political reporter for Montana Television Network (MTN), spending on the Senate race has come close to $150 million. That would be more than $215 per registered voter in Montana, and would put it on track
to be the fifth-most expensive Senate race in U.S. history.
“When [Bullock] got into the race, there was a recognition that he was probably the only Democrat who had the name recognition to be able to make it a close race. And the race is tightened,” says Eric Raile, a political science professor at Montana State University. “But he was also front and center
talking about the pandemic kind of very frequent basis. And I think he got some positive reactions to the way he was handling that.”
Governor Tries to Strike a Balance
a stay-at-home order in March that shut down many businesses and directed people to stay at home as much as possible. The order lasted
a month before the state gradually reopened. New daily infections in late May dropped to zero, and Montana’s economy began rebounding.
Since then, there’s been some fatigue among both the public and public officials over managing the spread of COVID-19, Raile adds, but Bullock has still maintained a regular presence in overseeing the state’s response.
In a state where fear of government overreach looms large, Bullock has pinned much of his coronavirus mitigation efforts on county governments. He issued
a mask mandate in July, but only made it apply to counties that had four or more active COVID-19 cases.
“There’s no reason this needs to be political, because COVID-19 isn’t political. Instead, this is about being a Montanan and being supportive of those around us,” Bullock explained at the time.
“Montanans need to not only feel safe, but be safe to continue supporting small businesses like restaurants, breweries, clothing stores, bookshops, and more. And Montanans need to be healthy to work. Mom and pop shops in Montana often have two employees: Mom and Pop themselves. If they get COVID-19, they can’t keep their business running,” he added.
As the virus has spread, Bullock originally tried to defer to local leaders.
“[New restrictions are] something we can look at down the road,” Bullock told
reporters in October. “Local government has the tools to [limit spread]. They know the counties where there’s significant transmission. And that’s where I think locally elected leaders have to be stepping up to say we can do more.”
There’s a practical reason for deferring to local leaders on coronavirus in such an expansive state, too, says Sara Rinfret, a professor who chairs the department of public administration and policy at the University of Montana.
“One of the things that he’s confronting is that you have a lot of rural communities that may not have any cases versus other places like Billings or Bozeman or Missoula, where the cases are skyrocketing,” she explains. Bullock has tried to reconcile that rural-urban divide by keeping in frequent touch with local leaders, like the mayors of the “Big Seven” cities in the state, and stressing the connections among residents of the state, which number just more than 1 million.
“I do think people buy into it, because Montanans are very proud” of their Montana roots, Rinfret says, whether that’s ranchers who have lived on the same land for generations or Native Americans whose ties to the area go back even further.
“If you watch any of the campaign ads for anyone whose running for statewide office, or even local or federal office, it’s all about their Montana roots, about who’s more of a Montanan than the next person,” Rinfret says. But that also means that residents do look out for each other, especially when they learn that one of their neighbors has contracted COVID-19, she adds.
As cases have surged in recent weeks, though, Bullock’s administration has taken a more aggressive stance. It directed federal coronavirus relief funds to counties to help them enforce mask mandates, including lawyers to help counties with enforcement actions. But so far, Montana Public Radio reports
, only four of the state’s 56 states have expressed interest in using that money.
The state Department of Public Health has also requested temporary restraining orders against five businesses
in Flathead County, Montana’s fourth-most populous county, in order to get them to comply with mandatory mask requirements. Several other counties have taken enforcement actions on their own.
This week, the governor also dispatched 67 National Guard troops to a state prison where more than 160 inmates and more than 60 staff members were infected. The Guard soldiers will assist in mostly behind-the-scenes operations like laundry and mail delivery and won’t be armed.
COVID Becomes a Campaign Issue
Daines, the Republican senator, has criticized Bullock for several aspects of his response, including how the governor doled out federal coronavirus relief money.
In particular, the senator criticized Bullock for not distributing enough federal relief money that Montana received to Native American tribes. He pointed to a state audit that found that less than 1 percent of the CARES Act money Montana received has gone to tribal governments. Native Americans make up 7 percent of Montana’s population but a third of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.
“Indian Country has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is alarming that Montana’s tribal governments have received less than $600,000 of the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) allocation provided by the CARES Act, which was intended to help all Montanans,” Daines wrote. “It is disappointing that a lack of communication has led to a disparity in the amount of relief each tribal government has received. We simply cannot let bureaucracy stand in the way of much needed aid.”
In particular, Chairman Alvin “A.J.” Not Afraid Jr. of the Crow Tribe Indians claimed
the tribe was “completely excluded from receiving any relief allocation whatsoever, for obvious politically punitive reasons” because the tribe endorsed Daines and President Donald Trump in the upcoming elections.
A Bullock spokesperson told
local reporters that the Crow Tribe, unlike other tribal governments in the state, had not applied for grants funded with the federal money. She added that the state had set aside money for the Crow if they do apply for those grants.
The tensions with Native American tribes over coronavirus funding and relief is significant both for health reasons and for political reasons.
As the New Yorker
, Native Americans are a crucial part of a coalition that Bullock and other Montana Democrats need to put together in order to win in a state that regular votes for Republican presidential candidates. (Although the Crow endorsed Daines, many other Native American groups have sided with Bullock.)
“Native Americans are the largest minority group in Montana and, from the perspective of the Democratic Party, as presumptively reliable a voting block as Latinos in the Southwest or Black voters in big cities and the South,” E. Tammy Kim wrote for the magazine. “Bullock’s fate, and perhaps the nation’s, may rest on the ballots of around forty-five thousand voting-age Native Americans and forty-six thousand union workers, half of whom belong to the Montana Federation of Public Employees.”
Daines also criticized the governor for not doling out the federal relief money more quickly overall. “That money needs to be deployed to our communities,” Daines said in an August debate. “It needs to get out quickly because Montanans are hurting.”
The governor’s office said most of the money had already been allocated, and Bullock said it made sense for the state to hang on to some of that money to deal with unexpected developments. Bullock, for his part, has attacked Daines for being part of a Senate Republican caucus that has held up another coronavirus relief package.
Voters, meanwhile, will get another chance to weigh in on whether they agree with Bullock’s approach to handling the coronavirus in Montana. In the race to succeed Bullock, Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney, a Democrat, has raised
the possibility of strengthening mask mandates and limiting the size of gatherings while a vaccine is developed. U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate, on the other hand, has pushed to reopen schools and businesses while emphasizing the role of “personal responsibility” in slowing the spread of the virus.