Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer is laying the groundwork to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Max Baucus in Montana, and looks very much like a candidate, sources have told the Lee Newspapers State Bureau.
Schweitzer, 57, a Democrat, was in Washington, D.C., last week, meeting with labor and conservation groups that traditionally support Democrats, talking about the Senate race and what assistance the groups could offer.
“I would be shocked if he didn’t announce (soon) that he’s a candidate,” said one Democratic insider, who declined to be quoted by name.
Schweitzer, in a telephone interview Friday evening, said while he’s been actively exploring whether to run, he hasn’t made a final decision.
He said it’s a difficult decision, and he’s not sure he wants to give up his post-political life of living on Georgetown Lake to get back into the political fray of Washington, D.C. — and take a substantial pay cut.
“The question is, can you make a difference?” he said. “I don’t know that a lot of people back there are even trying to make a difference. … That’s a demerit.”
Schweitzer said he knows he has to decide “pretty soon,” and vows he will.
Montana State political scientist David Parker, who’s writing a book about Montana’s 2012 Senate race between Sen. Jon Tester and former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, said late last week his Democratic sources believe Schweitzer is preparing to run.
“It’s a silver-platter opportunity,” Parker said of the open U.S. Senate seat created by Baucus’s retirement. “It would be stupid politically not to do it. And if there’s one thing we know about Brian Schweitzer, it’s that he’s not stupid politically. …
“It was clear to me, when he was in Bozeman on campus (this spring), that he has the chops and is still interested in being influential.”
Baucus, 71, announced April 23 he would not run for a seventh consecutive U.S. Senate term in 2014. The veteran Democrat said he wants to spend more time with his family and enjoy life in his native state.
By then, two Republicans already were running for the Baucus seat: Former state Sen. Corey Stapleton, a financial planner from Billings who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year, and state Rep. Champ Edmunds, a Missoula banker.
Other Republicans considering the race include U.S. Rep. Steve Daines and Ryan Zinke, a former state senator and retired Navy Seal commander from Whitefish.
Schweitzer, whose term as governor ended in January, said in April he wouldn’t rule out a run for the open seat but was busy then working with a New York-based hedge fund to take control of the Stillwater Mining Co. in Montana.
The successful takeover bid occurred in early May, with Schweitzer becoming the Montana mining company’s chairman of the board.
Schweitzer also has spoken dismissively of Congress and the U.S. Senate, saying last year he’s “not goofy enough to be in the House and not senile enough to be in the Senate.”
But since then, Schweitzer has been taking all the steps that candidates take, sources said, assembling his potential political team and talking to political consultants and groups that would support him financially and organizationally.
He’s even been in touch with political people close to Baucus — with whom he hasn’t had the warmest relationship — asking if they might help in the race.
One left-leaning group also isn’t waiting for Schweitzer to get in, before actively supporting him. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a political-action committee based in Washington, D.C., is leading an active “draft Schweitzer” movement, rounding up money and supporters.
The group’s co-founder, Adam Green, visited with Schweitzer in Montana in May, and the group is buying Internet ads in Montana saying “Draft Brian Schweitzer for Senate!”
So far, PCCC has raised $29,000 dedicated to helping the Schweitzer Senate campaign, signed up 415 people who say they’ll work as volunteers on the campaign and had nearly 18,300 people sign an on-line petition urging Schweitzer to run.
Group spokesman Matt Wall said the group aims to raise $50,000 for Schweitzer, and that the money is being held in escrow by Act Blue, a Democratic fund-raising group, until Schweitzer officially becomes a candidate.
The same group raised $100,000 in 2011 in urging Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren to run for a U.S. Senate seat. She challenged and defeated Republican Sen. Scott Brown in 2012.
“That’s kind of the same model that we’re following with Brian Schweitzer,” Wall said. “So, if he gets into this race, he’ll be able to hire staff and hit the ground running.”
However, Wall also acknowledged that PCCC has mounted “draft” campaigns for candidates who ultimately decided not to run, for various reasons.
Most top-ranking Democrats in Montana clearly expect Schweitzer to get in the race soon. Sen. Jon Tester, talking to NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd on MSNBC Thursday, said he doesn’t bet the farm on many things, “but I’d bet the farm (Schweitzer) is running.”