LEWISTOWN — Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer shocked the Montana and national political establishments Saturday with his announcement that he wouldn’t run for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2014 as many had expected.
“I never got in this race,” Schweitzer told the Gazette State Bureau in a telephone interview Saturday morning.
He acknowledged that he considered running for the Senate seat being vacated by longtime Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, but in the end he decided a legislative body isn’t the place for him.
“I’m a doer,” Schweitzer said.
He said he likes to plow half a field in the morning and see the progress by noon before he finishes the job in the afternoon.
“I’m used to being in charge of things, getting things done,” Schweitzer said. “Unfortunately, the U.S. Senate is a place where things die.”
He added, “I love Montana. I like my life in Montana right now. I’ve had eight years of public service.”
His decision set off a scramble for Montana’s first open U.S. Senate seat since 1978 and transforms the political dynamics of the race.
Democratic strategists had regarded Schweitzer, a popular two-term governor, as a heavy favorite to succeed Baucus and help the party maintain control of the U.S. Senate. Republicans have the majority in the U.S. House and have blocked much of Democratic President Barack Obama’s agenda in recent years.
All that may be in doubt now.
“If certain events unfold, it makes it a ‘lean Republican’ seat,” said David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University. “I think the Republican bench has more options than the Democratic one. The No. 1 option is Steve Daines.”
Daines, a freshman U.S. representative from Bozeman, previously had not announced publicly whether he would file for the Senate, likely against Schweitzer, but was under increasing pressure from national and state GOP leaders to do so.
That pressure is expected to boil over in the coming days.
After news of Schweitzer’s decision broke, Daines issued this statement:
"My focus is fixed on serving the people of Montana and doing the job they sent me to do. I will continue to give this decision the consideration it deserves, and am still taking time to talk with my family and the people of Montana about how I can best be of service to our state."
Two other Republicans, former state Sen. Corey Stapleton, of Billings, and current state Rep. Champ Edmunds, of Missoula, already are in the U.S. Senate race. Edmunds has said he would drop to the House race if Daines goes for the Senate.
If Daines jumps to Senate, it opens up a House seat that could draw a crowd of people from both political parties.
The Republican and Democratic national campaign committees put their respective spins on the Schweitzer news Saturday.
Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Schweitzer’s announcement “marks a sea change in our effort to earn back the Senate majority.”
“Just two days ago, Senate Democrats were quoted promising Brian Schweitzer tremendous resources to get in the race, showing just how off-guard they were caught by our extensive research effort,” he said. “We did our homework and there was a lot of rust under Schweitzer’s hood — a lot of rust.”
However, Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said, “We remain confident that Democrats can hold the Montana seat and the overall math still favors Democrats next year. Only three Democratic incumbents (nationally) have lost for re-election in the last decade.”
On the Democratic side, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and state Auditor Monica Lindeen said they will consider whether to run. Other names also were being mentioned.
Schweitzer said recent stories raising questions about his campaign finances and a 527 political committee weren’t a factor in his decision. Nor were comments in a recent story in the Washington, D.C., website Politico that featured a number of anonymous attacks on him from Democratic political insiders.
“None whatsoever,” he said. “Anonymous sources are just that. I don’t care what they write in Washington, D.C.”
He acknowledged that he had talked to a number of people about the possibility of running. The Gazette State Bureau reported last month that Schweitzer had traveled to Washington to meet with national union and conservation leaders about running for the Senate.
In Montana, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee had mounted a “Draft Brian Schweitzer” campaign, raising money and signing up more than 600 volunteers statewide to help him if he ran.
Schweitzer was a colorful and highly popular governor for eight years, wearing bolo ties and always accompanied by his border collie, Jag. In 2011, he used various “VETO” branding irons to reject a host of Republican bills in what he called a “bat-crap crazy” Legislature.
He took credit for keeping Montana state finances on sound footing when most states faced large deficits during the Great Recession.
Schweitzer said Saturday that he polled his family on whether to run. His wife, Nancy, and their three kids all said “no.”
“Jag just rolled his eyes,” Schweitzer said.
“Why would I leave the state that I love and the people that I love?” he asked. “Why would I give up watching the sun come over the Pintlers every morning?”
For several years, Schweitzer said he had no interest in going to Washington, claiming he “wasn’t senile enough” to be a U.S. senator.
He has said he prefers Georgetown Lake, where he has a lakefront home, to Georgetown, a tony residential and commercial area in Washington. However, Schweitzer’s first political race was an unsuccessful challenge of U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., in 2000.
Schweitzer also said he is enjoying his work as chairman of the board of Stillwater Mining Co., the largest publicly traded company in Montana. He and a hedge fund engineered a takeover of the board earlier this year.
The former governor, 57, wouldn’t rule out a future political run. He often has been mentioned as a future presidential candidate.
Schweitzer won acclaim from Democrats across the country after he gave a rousing speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention that had thousands of people on their feet and applauding. He was a popular speaker at Democratic events in a number of states, too.
“Should Montanans assume I’m out of politics forever?” he said. “I won’t say that. I can say that I’m probably not the right fit to be in this legislative race.”
Schweitzer said he had set a deadline of mid-July to make a decision on whether to jump into the Senate race.
By announcing his decision now, Schweitzer said that would give other candidates plenty of time to join the race.