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.
Schweitzer is known for being remarkably personable. But his leadership style is consistently characterized as a marriage of bullying and showmanship. He made his border collie a senior adviser, and would take it around the capitol despite a ban there on all animals that weren’t service dogs. And, as the pièce de résistance of his administration, he made a cattle brand with the word “VETO” on it, had it officially registered with the state, and used it to publicly veto dozens of pieces of legislation passed by the Republican legislature, sending the paper on which the bills were printed up in flames.
It’s not the kind of stunt executed by a person known for his ability to compromise. And Schweitzer wasn’t interested in meeting Republicans anywhere near the middle. He also wasn’t shy about using pushy tactics. He would sometimes call meetings with Republican legislative leaders and, without forewarning, also invite the press. The legislators would show up and get a ten-minute lecture from the governor in front of the group of reporters. Understandably, many lost interest in meeting with the governor.
He has a carefully crafted folksy persona: He once compared D.C. to “a brokedown pickup,” is fond of saying that he isn’t senile enough to be in the Senate, and wears bolo ties instead of neckties. On one Saint Patrick’s Day, he went to bars in Butte and did shots of whiskey. One source described all this as part of “the Brian show.” Insiders hold that behind the brashness and theatricality is a cautious, calculating, strategic politician who likes to be in charge and at the center of attention. His colorful comments sound off-the-cuff, and that’s by design.
And Montanans eat it up. When his term limit was up, he left office with approval from about six in ten of Montana voters.
“I think there’s very little question that this is probably not actually good news for Republicans if Brian Schweitzer decides to run,” says Travis Kavulla, a member of the state’s Public Service Commission and a former National Review associate editor. “He’s probably a much stronger candidate, I think, than Max Baucus.”
The former governor isn’t invulnerable. He’ll draw heat from both ends of the political spectrum — environmentalists deplore his pro-coal stance, and he’s fond of saying about gun control, “You control yours, I’ll control mine.” That said, some argue that he would have supported the Toomey-Manchin background-check amendment. And he vetoed a universal concealed-carry bill that the NRA had lobbied for.
As alluded to earlier, he also doesn’t think the Affordable Care Act goes far enough and has publicly called for single-payer health care. And there’s a late-breaking story about sexual misconduct that happened under his administration. Plus, in 2006 he publicly bragged about rigging the senatorial race that Democrat Jon Tester won, and said one election official was “nervous as a pregnant nun.” He dialed back those remarks, but they still don’t sound so good. And he also took some heat when he said that Mitt Romney’s family “came from a polygamy commune in Mexico.” Also, as noted on the Corner, he once suggested that Montana is full of racists.
So whether Brian Schweitzer will end up as the Democrats’ Todd Akin, or as their Marco Rubio, is up in the air. For now, though, he’s right where he likes to be: in the spotlight.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.