Meet the Gun-Loving, Straight-Talking, 2016 Democratic Presidential Dark Horse

Elahe Izadi
National Journal

To catch former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, look in Georgetown. Georgetown Lake in Montana, that is, a place nowhere close to resembling the nation’s capital or anything in it. The colorful Democrat, who has been receiving plenty of presidential and Senate speculation since leaving the governorship, passes his days running his natural-resource businesses, snowmobiling, and ice fishing.

But while Schweitzer sounds uninterested in a Senate campaign against Democrat Max Baucus -- he declined to answer questions about the six-term senator in an interview -- he’s not closing the door on a future presidential run.

“That’s a long time from now,” he told National Journal about his 2016 prospects. “Gosh, I got businesses to run right now. I’m concentrating on that right now, and what the future holds, the future holds.”

Schweitzer could be a 2016 dark horse; he was a popular Democratic governor in a red state and is no stranger to working the media and the national stage with his larger-than-life personality. This is a governor who, despite a gun ban in the state Capitol, kept one on his office wall. A governor who vetoed Republican bills by burning the word “VETO” onto them using a branding iron. A governor who can handle Letterman.

Montana Democrats warn not to rule out him out as a viable presidential candidate, citing his mastery of the working-the-room, grabbing-shoulders, stump-speech-giving brand of politics.

“There are a lot of Beltway types that are skeptical of his ability,” says one former Baucus aide. “If Hillary [Rodham Clinton] runs, all bets are off, no one can contest her in a primary. If she doesn’t, then Brian Schweitzer is the kind of guy who can run away with Iowa.”

Schweitzer said he’s “been a person that believes government has no place standing between you and your physician and government has no place in your bedroom.”

As a Democrat from a gun-owning state, he’s in favor of background checks while also saying he has “more [guns] than I need and less than I want.” When asked how many and what kinds of guns he owns, he responded, “None of your damn business.”

He’s even hedging on his past insistence he wouldn’t run against Clinton if she were in the race. While still governor, Schweitzer had said that if Clinton runs, she’ll get the nomination and “it’s lights out.” Now he points to the 2008 primary as a cautionary tale that the presumed front-runner doesn’t always walk away from the nomination: “It’s tough to know. Before she ran for president last time, people thought, ‘Gosh, if Hillary Clinton runs, it’ll be she or Dodd or Biden.’ Someone said it could be Richardson. It’s a long time from now.”

But, he added, “The Clintons have built decades of support, financial support. Of course these offices require a great deal of money.”

Recent buzz has centered over whether Schweitzer will indeed challenge Baucus in a 2014 -- which some Montana Democrats privately say is more rumor than reality and is intended to keep Schweitzer in the limelight. A Public Policy Polling survey showing him leading Baucus by 18 points was posted on his Facebook page (he has said he didn’t post it himself). “The rumored primary battle is more fodder for news columns than it is real,” one senior Montana Democrat says.

There is no love lost between the two Democrats -- they’ve long had a cold relationship, particularly since Baucus’s role in shepherding Obama's health care law through Congress. (Schweitzer is a vocal advocate of a single-payer health care system.) They also have vastly different styles -- Schweitzer is gregarious; Baucus is more introverted. Schweitzer declined to comment on Baucus’s record as a senator or his approval ratings.

So why not make a run for it? For one, the primary contest would be one of the few Democrat-on-Democrat Senate battles of 2014, with the eventual winner emerging badly bruised before having to take on a Republican in a conservative state.

And while Schweitzer looks well-positioned now, Baucus has loads of money (about $3.6 million on hand) and the proven ability to raise even more. His allies point to how he’s helped build the state’s party infrastructure and to his seasoned campaign apparatus.

“If there were a primary battle, it would not be pretty,” says the senior Montana Democrat. “But I would never ever ever underestimate Max Baucus. He’s been through tough races.”

Some Montana Democrats have trouble envisioning Schweitzer even having an appetite for the job of a senator -- it’s definitely a place that has frustrated plenty of former governors who are used to being executives. And Schweitzer doesn’t hide his disdain for Washington, calling it a “corrupt” place that he’s uninterested in becoming a part of. ("I am not goofy enough to be in the House, and I'm not senile enough to be in the Senate”, is a line he’s been using for some time.)

“Congress is motion masquerading as action. I haven’t figured out how these members of Congress--if you’re in the House, you probably have a dozen or two employees, in the Senate, you have 50 or 60, and you don’t even run anything,” says Schweitzer.

He still subscribes to his “not goofy enough” and “too senile” remark as describing his feelings on working in the halls of the Capitol. “That’s the way I stand today,” Schweitzer said from his Georgetown Lake home. “I’m looking over the lake. A snowmobile just went by. You can’t beat that.”