NEWTON — Steve Bullock said talking to people in their communities is what helped him shepherd Medicaid expansion through the Republican-dominated state Legislature in 2015, at the height of the GOP thrashing of the federal health care law.
Bullock, the Democratic governor of Montana, said in an interview Friday — during his first trip to Iowa after making his presidential campaign official — that his state’s Medicaid expansion provides an example of how he can work across party lines to accomplish legislative goals.
Even though Republicans comprise roughly two-thirds of Montana’s Legislature, the body approved Medicaid expansion in 2015, when a presidential campaign was heating up and Republicans on the campaign trail were hypercritical of the health care law enacted five years earlier under Democratic President Barack Obama and a Democratic-controlled Congress.
Bullock, 53, said he was able to generate grass-roots support by traveling the state and talking to people about their health care. He noted as an example talking to a rural hospital official who said Medicaid was critical to the hospital’s survival.
Bullock said that local official’s support for Medicaid expansion helped that area’s Republican state legislator support the proposal.
“The way I win (elections) and the way I govern are largely the same,” Bullock said as he traveled to a Newton campaign event. “I don’t just sit in the statehouse and say, ‘All right, legislators, come with me on this.’ ”
As part of a bargain with Republican state lawmakers, Montana’s Medicaid expansion also included a provision that offers voluntary help to Medicaid recipients who want to find a better-paying job.
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“So the grand bargain in 2015 was we’re not just going to provide (expanded Medicaid), we’re going to try to work to improve people’s lives,” Bullock said. “And we’ve seen it work.”
In his campaign rollout, Bullock has stressed his work as a Democratic governor in a Republican state. In 2016, he was re-elected by 4 percentage points while Republican President Donald Trump carried the state by 20 points.
Bullock said roughly a quarter of his voters also voted for Trump.
Bullock noted this when asked whether his campaign could resonate with voters who strayed from Democrats in the 2016 presidential election. Iowa has the most counties of any state in the nation that went for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.
“If we don’t bring those voters back, we don’t win,” Bullock said. “More important than that, or equally important, you can’t govern if there’s a whole lot of places that say this Democratic Party doesn’t connect at all with you. ...
“I think part of why we lost a lot of those areas was we didn’t show up,” he said. “We didn’t give them a reason to fundamentally believe that we would be fighting for their educational and economic interests.
“President Trump tapped into the anxiousness, the frustration of people. But he used it to divide people into warring camps as opposed to saying, ‘Let’s try to lift everybody up.’ ”
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