Brian Schweitzer has some making up to do as he considers a Senate run in Montana in 2014 — and he’ll start with home-state Democrats.
The headline-grabbing, backslapping Democratic populist won a second term as governor in 2008 with nearly two-thirds of the vote, and he remained popular as he moved out of the governor’s mansion in January. But his style and perceived not-a-team-player attitude after eight years in Helena has rubbed numerous people in both parties the wrong way.
That includes — but is hardly limited to — the inner circle of retiring Democratic Sen. Max Baucus. According to several Montana Democrats — who all hope he runs and wins — Schweitzer’s campaign planning has included extending olive branches to a Baucus political apparatus he’ll likely need.
“He is on a charm offensive,” Montana Democratic strategist Barrett Kaiser said. “That’s good because Brian is a smart enough guy to know that he’s going to need more than the $50,000 that the out-of-state netroots are promising him.”
So far, the outreach has not included anyone close to Montana’s other Democratic senator, Jon Tester. Schweitzer, who campaigned on Tester’s behalf in 2006, was noticeably absent from the trail last year, as the first-term senator engaged in one of the toughest re-election campaigns in the country.
Although Tester said in a TV interview last week that he would “bet the farm” that Schweitzer will run, the senator hasn’t yet heard it straight from the horse’s mouth.
“The last time Brian Schweitzer and Jon Tester spoke to each other was before Election Day,” one Montana Democratic insider said. “Jon Tester has not even received a phone call from Brian Schweitzer, so that should tell you where things are.”
Baucus’ retirement puts Democrats’ hopes of holding the seat in this GOP-leaning state in the hands of Schweitzer, a talented politician by all accounts. His solid approval ratings, successful tenure as governor and support among Republicans makes him the obvious — and perhaps only — choice of party leadership.
Despite the rocky relationships, Schweitzer would be favored to win if he runs. Plus, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has signaled it would back his candidacy with significant financial support. Meanwhile, Baucus cut a $100,000 check to the DSCC on Tuesday, an indication that more financial support will come.
Still, Schweitzer hasn’t announced his plans yet. And he had no intention of discussing his Senate aspirations Monday after calling CQ Roll Call, which had reached out to a source close to him for comment.
In a brusque, five-minute conversation woven with one-sentence answers, Schweitzer delved into journalism ethics and his training as a soil scientist. As for the Senate race, he only confirmed he was “maybe looking at it.”
The gregarious Democrat with a history of good relations with the press insisted that it didn’t matter what he said, since reporters write what they want to anyway. After initiating the call, he ended it by boasting that he’d given the reporter “almost nothing.”
Victory would transport Schweitzer straight into the bowels of a town for which he offered only negative reviews after visiting last week. It would also place this one-man army into a frustratingly slow-paced legislative body that can be a difficult transition for former governors.
Schweitzer said his kind of Georgetown is the picturesque fishing lake by that name in Big Sky country — not the elite retail and residential hub on Washington’s west side.
“That place sucks,” he said in the phone interview, referring to D.C. “Come on, I don’t want that smell on me. ... I’m where everyone wishes they could be.”
If he does indeed run, one Montana Democrat would say only that there are fences that could be mended. Others noted that despite his advantages of vast support among independents and brand loyalty, Schweitzer would likely need the help of the state party’s leaders if a top-tier Republican candidate, for example freshman Rep. Steve Daines, jumps in.
A Daines spokeswoman said the congressman is still considering his options. But he’s also no doubt waiting to see what Schweitzer decides.
Schweitzer said he has “not really” spoken about the Senate race with advisers of either sitting senator. He ran for Senate once before, losing to Republican Sen. Conrad Burns in a close 2000 race. Baucus is retiring next year after six terms and is credited with building the state party into the legitimate operation that it is today.
Tester defeated Burns in 2006, and he won re-election last year despite a double-digit loss in the state for President Barack Obama.
“I’ve run a few campaigns,” Schweitzer said. “The last time I ran statewide, I got 65.5 percent and my opponent got 32 percent. So I probably could do something like that again. I don’t know.”
Montana’s Lee Enterprises newspapers reported Sunday that Schweitzer was preparing to run and had been in D.C. to meet with potential supporters. Asked Monday about the jaunt, Schweitzer said the names of DSCC Chairman Michael Bennet and Executive Director Guy Cecil “don’t really ring a bell.” He “might’ve” spoken with some senators while in town, “but it wasn’t memorable.”
“Oh, I was having a look around to see how bad it would be to live there,” Schweitzer said. “And I concluded it was really bad to live there — traffic is bad, weather is worse. Most of the people you talk to are frauds. You know.”
The charm offensive continues.
(Read more excerpts from the Roll Call conversation with Schweitzer here.)