With Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) opting not to run for reelection in 2014, all eyes turned Tuesday to former governor Brian Schweitzer (D), who sources said would be a likely option to run for Baucus's seat.
A person familiar with Schweitzer's thinking tells Post Politics that the Democrat is leaning toward running. There had been chatter that the bolo tie-wearing former governor, who left office earlier this year after two terms, might even challenge Baucus in the primary. He also is viewed as a dark horse 2016 presidential candidate, though few voters outside his home state know much about Schweitzer.
Karl Struble, a Democratic strategist who used to work for Schweitzer, said he thinks the former governor will make a bid for Baucus's seat. "He's the best chance Democrats have," Struble said.
Another Democrat thinks Schweitzer will wait a bit before making a decision. "I think he will take some time and bask in he attention. I don't know that he wants to be a U.S. Senator," said a former Schweitzer ally, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide a candid take.
Schwietzer has often brushed off talk of joining Congress, even as he's been viewed as a his party's top potential recruit. "I am not goofy enough to be in the House, and I'm not senile enough to be in the Senate," he told the Associated Press last year. It wouldn't be Schweitzer's first bid for the Senate. He ran in 2000, losing a close race to Republican Conrad Burns.
The former governor left office in sound political shape. Polls showed six in 10 Montana voters approved of Schweizer during his final year in office, a strong standing from which to launch a race for the Senate. Specifically, a January 2012 Colorado College poll found 65 percent of registered voters approving and 24 percent disapproving of Schweitzer. The poll was conducted Jan. 2-7, 2012, among 400 registered voters by Public Opinion Strategies (R) and Fairbank, Maslin, Maulin, Metz & Associates (D).
At this point, the Republican field is populated by two low-profile current and former state legislators. Former state senator Corey Stapleton, who lost the 2012 GOP gubernatorial nomination, is joined by state Rep. Champ Edmunds, who looks to be carving out ground at the rightward end of the field.
There is plenty of time for Republicans to coalesce around a candidate. Look for Rep. Steve Daines (R), 2012 GOP nominee Denny Rehberg, and state Attorney General Tim Fox (R) to be mentioned as potential candidates as the open race unfolds.
Rehberg said earlier this year he doesn't plan to run again, but politicians have reversed course before. Daines, who had previously brushed off questions about whether he would run for the Senate, will consider a run, a spokeswoman said.
“Steve is humbled by the calls and e-mails encouraging him to consider a run for the Senate, and given today’s announcement by Senator Baucus, he is giving it serious and thoughtful consideration,” Daines spokeswoman Alee Lockman said.
Reached Tuesday morning, a spokesman for Fox said the attorney general is happy in his current position, and looks forward to continuing his service. "Montanans elected Tim Fox to serve as their attorney general. He looks forward to serving them in that capacity and working hard to make Montana safer and more prosperous in the months and years to come," said Fox spokesman John Barnes.
On the Democratic side, one more name to keep an eye on is EMILY's List head Stephanie Schriock. She is a Montana native who once worked for Sen. Jon Tester (D), who defied the odds to win reelection last year. Schriock's Montana roots and relationships with national donors make her an intriguing potential candidate to watch.
Scott Clement and Aaron Blake contributed to this report. Clement is a pollster with Capital Insight, the Washington Post's independent polling group.
Updated at 12:24 p.m.