If there's a silver lining for 2020 Democratic candidates who didn't make the cut for the first Democratic debates later this month, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is certainly looking for it.
As the only candidate elected in a state that also voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election, Bullock has argued that the DNC is blocking the one Democrat who can truly connect with Trump voters. He's taking advantage of not making the debate stage to emphasize what's he accomplished working with a Republican legislature in Montana -- and giving his campaign a chance at what his many rivals in the 2020 field wish for: a moment to stand apart from the pack.
Capitalizing on that moment, it took just a day after the DNC's announcement, Bullock's campaign to issue a fundraising call. In a new campaign ad obtained exclusively by ABC News, a man born and raised in Montana sits in the bed of his truck and rails against the DNC's decision not to include the governor on the debate stage.
"Yeah, I heard the news," says Jock Conyngham, a 63-year-old ecologist who comes from a long line of Montana ranchers. "DNC is saying Gov. Bullock doesn’t qualify for the debates. That’s horses--t."
Conyngham's dog, Muddy, sits nearby and on his lap is a local newspaper with a headline about Montana Democrats blasting the DNC.
"You don't need to be from Montana to know that anybody who wins by four, same election Trump wins by 20, is doing something right here," Conynham says. "He doesn’t qualify -- really?"
It's the second campaign ad Bullock's team has released that focuses primarily on the debates. An earlier ad, released a day before the announcement, featured a young woman from Montana who said Bullock wouldn't make the stage because he was too busy working on health care in the state.
Though he came close, Bullock was one of three major candidates to not qualify for the debate stage ahead of the first debate in June in Miami, an event that will draw millions of Democratic primary voters and offer exposure that could give candidates a boost.
The governor was on the cusp of meeting the DNC’s requirements and even briefly considered by media outlets to have met the threshold up until a recent DNC rule change, which removed one of the polls that would’ve qualified the Montana governor for the stage. After the change was publicized, Bullock qualified in only two polls accepted by the DNC. His campaign also did not meet the donor threshold.
“When the DNC blocks the leading Democratic voice on rural America from contributing to our Party's vision, we’re only making it that much easier for Donald Trump to be a two-term president,” said Galia Slayen, Bullock's communications director. She described the rules as "set by Washington elites."
The DNC rules for the June and July debates stipulate a candidate must either net at least 1% in three national or early-state polls conducted between January 2019 and two weeks before a given debate, or receive donations from more than 65,000 people across 20 states, with a minimum of 200 unique donors per state.
The DNC's recent rule change led to a Hail Mary effort late Wednesday night, just hours before the DNC began certifying each candidate for the stage. Bullock's campaign manager Jennifer Ridder wrote a letter to DNC Chairman Tom Perez and told him they had submitted documents to join the debate.
Bullock "has met the threshold for qualification for the first debate," Ridder argued Wednesday, and “looks forward to joining his colleagues on the stage for this important occasion."
“I'm disappointed with the DNC,” Bullock said in an interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd. But asked if he would challenge the DNC’s decision, Bullock demurred.
“Chuck, you just showed the board of everyone that’s going to be on there, so certainly, you know — disappointed,” he said, referring to a graphic of each of the 20 candidates who will be on the stage, including front-runners like former Vice President Joe Biden and lesser-known candidates like entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
Previously, media outlets including POLITICO, MSNBC and ABC News had considered Bullock to have hit the polling threshold in three polls, including a Washington Post/ABC News poll, but the DNC later publicly said that poll was not eligible because it was open-ended.
A spokesperson for the DNC said they made the Bullock campaign aware that the poll would not count back in March.
But in her letter Wednesday, Ridder defended the February poll results, saying "polling experts agree that it's actually harder to get 1% in an open-ended vote question than when a list is provided." She argued that the DNC didn’t specify against open-ended polls in its original rules or certification rules.
"Since there is no sufficient warrant to exclude such a poll in either of the original rules or in the Polling Method Certification form promulgated by the DNC this week, the poll meets the DNC requirements and is valid," Ridder wrote.
The DNC did not respond to a request for comment from ABC News.
Two other 2020 candidates, Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam and Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, also fell short of the debate qualifications.
Messam, whose hometown of Miramar is just minutes from where the first debate will be held in June in Miami, told ABC News last week that he wasn't sure of the "system or rationale" behind the requirements developed by the DNC.
"But it'll definitely stifle the diversity of candidates that would be able to be heard on the debate stage," Messam predicted. Messam didn't hit the donor threshold and hit 1% in one poll.
In an interview at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston on Thursday, Moulton, who did not hit the donor threshold or 1% in any polls, said he hadn't expected to make the first debate because he entered the race later than most candidates.
The congressman said he wasn't concerned he didn't make the debate but also said he's "not naive."
"Look, it's a big field. And, you know, we poll very well among people who know me but most Americans just don't know me yet, because I'm new to the race," Moulton said.
And there's a long road ahead, a campaign spokesperson pointed out.
"At this point in 2016, Trump wasn't even in the race. In 2008, Hillary Clinton was the presumed nominee, and in 2004 we were preparing for President Howard Dean," said Moulton's national press secretary Matt Corridoni.