Steve Bullock will apply to be the first — and perhaps only — Democrat in the presidential primary who accepts public financing for his campaign, a potentially risky move that could give his struggling fundraising a boost but would also require the Montana governor to abide by a cap on the amount of money he can spend.
Top presidential contenders for years fueled their campaigns using the public financing system, which was established to reduce the influence of big donors in the wake of the Watergate scandal. But that’s waned ever since George W. Bush rejected the assistance in 2000. And the trend has become even more pronounced following a series of court rulings and regulatory changes that allowed even more cash to course through elections.
Bullock, who filed legal challenges to reverse those rulings when he was Montana’s attorney general, says his turn to public financing demonstrates that he is “walking the walk” at a time when rejecting big money in politics has become an animating issue for party activists. He will submit his application to the Federal Election Commission after the close of the third fundraising quarter, which ends Monday.
“As the only candidate for President who is choosing to participate in the public finance process, Governor Bullock is leading with his values and defending our shared belief that our democracy should never be for sale to the highest bidder,” campaign manager Jennifer Ridder says in a memo provided to The Associated Press that outlines his rationale.
Yet Bullock’s decision comes as he has trailed far behind the leading fundraisers in the race. While he is touting it as a demonstration of his commitment to campaign finance reform, he also has little to lose in doing so and would have to see a dramatic increase in fundraising to hit an estimated $60 million spending cap triggered by his acceptance of the money.
Moments before Montana Gov. Steve Bullock joined other 2020 candidates on the Democratic debate on Tuesday, his team delivered news about a victory back home: the governor just won a year-long lawsuit against the Trump administration.
Bullock, whose campaign message centers on removing dark money from politics, sued the Internal Revenue Service a year ago over a rule requiring that politically-active nonprofit groups disclose to the IRS names of donors. The rule had been overturned by President Donald Trump’s administration.
A federal judge in Montana, Brian Morris, ruled on Tuesday evening that the rule would be reinstated.
According to the docket, which was provided to ABC News by the Bullock campaign, the court “holds unlawful” the rule as adopted by the IRS and said the agency “must follow the proper notice-and-comment procedures pursuant to the APA it if seeks to adopt a similar rule.”
Under the previous law, the names of donors who gave $5,000 or more in their tax returns would be disclosed to the IRS, although the IRS would redact those names when making those documents public. Such groups are commonly called “dark money” groups because they don’t disclose their donors publicly unlike other politically active groups that disclose their donors to the FEC such as super PACs.
Most efforts underway to restore so-called net neutralityface big obstacles and would take many months, if not years, to succeed.
But in Montana, the governor has used the stroke of a pen to bring the rules to broad parts of his state.
Through an executive order, Gov. Steve Bullock declared on Monday that any internet service provider with a state government contract cannot block or charge more for faster delivery of websites, two core aspects of net neutrality, to any customer in the state.
Many major landline and mobile broadband providers, including Charter, CenturyLink, AT&T and Verizon, hold government contracts in the state. The new requirements apply to new and renewed contracts signed after July 1, 2018.
The action, the first of its kind by a governor, could face legal challenges.
In December, the Federal Communications Commission rolled back rules meant to protect a free and open internet. The new rules say states cannot create net neutrality laws. The agency did not respond to a request for comment about the Montana action.