Brian Schweitzer, the Great Progressive Hope?

Elahe Izadi

Within hours of news breaking that Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., was retiring, progressives began pushing the idea that former Gov. Brian Schweitzer should run for his seat.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee has raised nearly $20,000 for its effort to draft Schweitzer, according to the group. Howard Dean’s Democracy for Action also launched a campaign. “Schweitzer is a populist guy,” Dean said Wednesday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “Even though he’s actually not that liberal, he’s been out on the front of a lot of issues that progressives care about, and progressives matter in a primary.”

Schweitzer appeals to progressives when it comes to issues like health care; he’s a vocal supporter of a single-payer health care system, and he’s had a chilly relationship with Baucus since the senator’s role in the health care debate in Washington.

“[Schweitzer's] stance on health care has definitely been a huge factor. He’s also been someone who consistently, throughout his tenure in Montana, who has been unsullied and unscared to take on corporate interests,” said DFA spokesman Neil Sroka.

Schweitzer’s brand of libertarian populism works well in Montana, a state that President Obama lost by 13 points in 2012, but which has a long history of campaign finance laws and skepticism of corporate interests mixing with politics. Montana also benefits greatly from federal money; Montanans pay less in federal taxes than the state receives in federal aid.

Baucus, who has been dubbed the “senator from K Street” by progressive groups (many former Baucus aides are now lobbyists), drew harsh criticism from Dean and others for his vote last week against expanding background checks on gun purchases. “When compared to Max Baucus’s spinelessness on gun-violence prevention—and that isn’t the first time he’s raised the ire of the progressive community—there’s a chance right now to elect someone who is a real populist, progressive on a lot of issues we care about,” Sroka says.

But Schweitzer, a solidly pro-gun Democrat who’s said he has “more [guns] than I need and less than I want,” isn’t exactly a darling for the gun-control movement.

In the days after the Newtown, Conn., shooting, Schweitzer said on a Montana radio talk show that banning assault weapons or limiting high-capacity magazines "wouldn't change anything that happened back in Connecticut in terms of what gun was used and what kinds of guns would be used."

"I don't want to sound like a terrorist here, but if you give me 20 gallons of propane, I can do a lot of damage in a short period of time," he said. "This is evil, and it has everything to do with mental illness."

He went on to blame video-game manufacturers and said "an entire generation are glued to a screen for six to eight hours a day while they are poking buttons and blowing other people up and shooting them in the face." That kind of talk is similar to comments by Sen. Chuck Grassley that video-game violence needed to be addressed in the gun-control debate.

Schweitzer doesn’t sound like he’d support an assault-weapons ban or limiting ammunition. And while it’s unknown whether he would have voted in favor of the Manchin-Toomey background-check bill that Baucus voted against, there is some evidence to suggest he may have supported it.

Schweitzer told theNational Journal in February that he supports background checks. And in 2011, Schweitzer vetoed a bill that would have let people carry concealed weapons in Montana’s urban centers without a permit. Carrying concealed weapons without a permit is already allowed in much of the state, but not in its cities, and Schweitzer said the measure went too far on the issue of background checks.

“This allows the individual to make his or her own eligibility determination and deprives law enforcement of the opportunity to consider whether the person is a threat to the community," he said. "Under current law, Montana's sheriffs are responsible for issuing concealed-weapon permits. This is as it should be."

Past votes aren't perfect indicators, though; Baucus, who voted for the Brady Bill, also supported an assault-weapons ban in the 1990s. 

Sroka maintains that Schweitzer is good on the issue of guns. “Progressives aren’t anti-gun, they’re pro-gun-violence prevention and pro passing laws that ... help promote responsible gun ownership. Schweitzer’s record on that is actually a really good model.”

For his part, Schweitzer has acknowledged that his stance on guns wouldn’t work in a national Democratic presidential primary. “In Iowa and Florida, those Democratic voters would ask me about things like gun control and I’d say things like, ‘You control yours, I’ll control mine,’” Schweitzer said last week. But for a Democrat in Montana, that works quite well.

And as for whether he’s running for Baucus’s seat, he said Tuesday that he’s “not ruling anything out, or anything in" quite yet.

This story has been updated to reflect more current fundraising figures by PCCC.