Montana’s Democratic Hope
Brian Schweitzer loves the spotlight.

Brian Schweitzer


Betsy Woodruff

Back in 2009, in the heat of the debate over the passage of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama and Senator Max Baucus of Montana traveled to Belgrade, Mont., to hold a rally at an airport hangar in support of the bill. It didn’t go so well. The president and the senator — one of the top architects of the bill — were facing intense pressure from progressive groups to include a public option. But the two were desperate to just get some — any — sort of reform pushed through (hence the whistlestop-west publicity tour) and didn’t want to cater to far-left groups. And Montana’s then-governor Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, wasn’t having it. He introduced the two to attendees at the rally and, in his introduction, went off in favor of a Canadian-style single-payer health-care system, a none-too-subtle dig at the proposed reforms for which the rally was supposed to gin up support. The introduction was “just a vocal f*** you to the president and chairman Baucus,” as one Montana political insider characterizes it. And Baucus wasn’t pleased.

“The way I’ve heard it, and this is from Baucus people, is Baucus almost threw a punch at Schweitzer backstage after the event,” says the insider. “His nostrils were flaring, fists clenched.”

Relations between the Baucus and Schweitzer camps were never especially cozy. That’s to be expected from a governor and senator jockeying for the top-dog spot in a state’s party. But after Schweitzer’s health-care mouthing off, things went from touchy to toxic. Word has it Baucus spent more than $100,000 on oppo research on the former governor. It’s widely known that their staffs — Baucus’s favoring wonky aspiring lobbyists, and Schweitzer’s featuring politicos who prefer Montana to D.C. because they like to go fishing — kind of hate each other. And now Schweitzer is mulling a run for Baucus’s soon-to-be-vacated seat.

That’s probably owing in no small part to the fact that a series of PPP polls show Schweitzer beating Baucus handily in a primary. Schweitzer made a stir when one of the polls got posted on his Facebook page without any comment. When his senior adviser had put up a similar one a few months earlier — captioned only, “Interesting” — it made national news. It also made Baucus’s staff livid.

So is the enemy of conservatives’ enemy their friend? Uh, probably not. Schweitzer’s ideology and leadership style take a little parsing, and they’re especially significant since he could be the Democrats’ Senate nominee in 2014.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, it’s important to keep in mind that Schweitzer hasn’t actually said he’s running for the Senate. Insiders concur that his personality is much more suited for an executive spot than for being No. 100 out of 100. They also agree that — let’s be honest — he wants to be president. He’d be the darkest of dark horses, but he’d have a better shot of landing that gig if he ran from the Senate instead of from a pasture in Montana.

Schweitzer loved being governor of Montana, and loved the spotlight. Over his tenure, he won the affection of the Montana press. All the reporters covering state politics have his cell-phone number, according to one source, and thought it was pretty funny when he changed the hold music on his cell to Toby Keith’s “As Good As I Once Was,” a song that coyly jokes about erectile dysfunction.

The former governor also has an impressive statewide network. He unsuccessfully ran for Senate in 2000, against Conrad Burns, and in the four years between that run and his first gubernatorial campaign, he sent a handwritten note to everyone who wrote a letter to the editor in a Montana newspaper that he agreed with. And once, as governor, he gave a commencement address at a high school that had only one student graduating. The student asked him to do it, so he did.