HELENA — For months, the Montana political rumor mill has been abuzz with a couple of juicy tidbits.
The first one, circulating on and off since last summer, has Gov. Brian Schweitzer gearing up to take on longtime Sen. Max Baucus in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate in 2014 in what would be a battle of political titans.
Fueling the rumor was Schweitzer’s warm-up speech before President Barack Obama’s address in Belgrade in August. Schweitzer made a strong pitch there for a Canadian-style, single-payer health care system.
Some saw Schweitzer’s speech as a pointed shot at Baucus, who refused even to consider a single-payer system. Backstage observers said Baucus was none too happy with Schweitzer’s remarks and told him so. Baucus was a leading architect of the health reform bill that Obama signed into law this year — minus a single-payer system.
In recent weeks, speculation has intensified in some political circles that Schweitzer is preparing to challenge Sen. Jon Tester in the 2012 Democratic Senate primary.
U.S. senators are considered the most vulnerable when they run for their second terms.
Tester has already announced he is seeking a second term in 2012 and, contrary to another frequent rumor, is not running for governor instead. Schweitzer could run for the Senate while still governor and in Montana full time, the chatter goes, while Tester is based in Washington most of the time.
Driving that rumor has been Schweitzer’s vocal complaint in June that his “federal partners have let us down.” He was referring to their failure to come up with $17 million to compensate Canadian mining companies for not developing gold, coal, oil and gas in the area north of Glacier National Park. Schweitzer negotiated a deal with the premier of British Columbia that includes paying two companies for walking away from their mines.
Schweitzer’s remark was aimed at Tester and Baucus, as well as Obama administration officials. In response, the two senators insisted earlier this month that they are working with federal and state officials on the plan to preserve Canadian wildlands to protect the Flathead.
So is Schweitzer eyeing a Senate challenge?
Schweitzer put the kibosh on these rumors late last week during a taping of the “Dunwell Report,” an interview show hosted by Don Dunwell of KTVH television in Helena and set to air Sunday.
I asked Schweitzer if planned to run against either Tester or Baucus for the Senate, as the rumors have him doing.
“That sounds like silly talk to me,” the governor replied. “I’ve got 2½ years of this job, and it’s the most challenging and most interesting job on the planet. And I really have no interest in being part of the United States Senate. I like to get things accomplished on a weekly and monthly basis, and I know that in the U.S. Senate, it takes a long time to accomplish things.”
I followed up by asking Schweitzer: “So you’re ruling out running for the U.S. Senate.”
“Yeah,” Schweitzer said.
I pressed him further: “So you would never run for the Senate?”
“Never’s a long time, but I have no interest in being in the United States Senate,” Schweitzer said.
In 2000, Schweitzer lost a close race for the Senate to then-Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican, and went on to win the governor’s seat four years later. He has told reporters often how much more he enjoys the governor’s job than he believes he would have liked being a senator.
Politicians can and do change their minds, of course, but for now at least, we can scratch those rumors of Schweitzer challenging either Tester or Baucus.
Schweitzer will be done as governor in early January 2013 at age 57. Term limits will prevent him from seeking a third term in 2012.
Who knows what the energetic and ambitious Schweitzer might have up his sleeve when he leaves the governor’s office?
It’s hard to imagine him abandoning politics. Then again, he was a political unknown in the private sector when he started running for the Senate in 1999, and he might want to return to private life again.
Charles S. Johnson is chief of the Gazette State Bureau in Helena. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 800-525-4920 or 406-447-4066.