Brian Schweitzer, 2016 dark horse

December 3, 2012

The sun is about to set on the gubernatorial career of Montana Democrat Brian Schweitzer, but the political world may not have heard its last word from the popular term-limited governor.

Schweitzer has already attracted the attention of national observers, and while he remains a little-known figure outside Montana, there are several reasons why he'd be an intriguing presidential candidate in four years. 


Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), right, could have ambitions for higher office. (Casey Cunningham/Washington Post)

Let's start with what he's said. Appearing Sunday on CNN, Schweitzer was asked about 2016. While he declared it far too early to begin any discussion about 2016 in earnest, Schweitzer made a lighthearted reference to the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. 

"Look, again, it’s way too early to talk about 2016, Schweitzer said on “State of The Union.” “I’m governor of Montana until January. At that point, I will no longer have a governor’s mansion. I won’t have a driver, I won’t have security, so I will have a little time on my hands. I think I did mention that I have a warm regard for the people of Iowa and New Hampshire.”

While his future is up in the air, this much is for certain: Schweitzer is about to leave office in prime political shape. He sported a 54 percent approval rating in an October survey conducted by Democratic automated pollster PPP, with just 36 percent disapproving of the job was doing. In a 2011 Mason-Dixon survey, Schweitzer scored the best approval rating among top statewide officeholders. 

What's more, he has flair. While most other governors wield a veto pen, the bolo-tie wearing governor has rejected legislation with branding irons

Beyond the theatrics, Schweitzer has won plaudits for the state's economic stability during a period in which other states have suffered. 

"I think he's popular because you combine that style with some pretty popular substance," said Montana State University political analyst David Parker, who pointed to Schweitzer's resource development resume as an example of his accomplishments. 

"He's just basically revived a state government that really was not producing results," said Eric Stern, Schweitzer's senior counselor and former campaign manager. 

Being a Democrat from a red state could make Schweitzer an appealing choice for moderates and independents in 2016. And coming from outside Washington would help him cultivate an outsider image. 

Before he decides about 2016, the governor might look at an election just two years away. Schweitzer is also mentioned in state political circles as a possible primary challenger to Sen. Max Baucus (D), who faces reelection in 2014. The Senate Finance Committee chairman, who could face a tough primary and general election campaign, has taken no chances, airing an out-of-cycle positive radio ad earlier this year. 

But Schweitzer, who lost a close Senate race to then-Sen. Conrad Burns (R) in 2000, has brushed aside congressional campaign talk. "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 earlier this year

While there are plenty of reasons Schweitzer would be a potentially formidable presidential candidate, he also faces some barriers. For one thing, he’s not a well-known national figure. The other names being mentioned as potential 2016 Democratic White House hopefuls are Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, each of whom has received more national exposure. 

Fundraising would also be a challenge for Schwietzer, who doesn't come from a state that is a hotbed of high-profile national donors. The relationships he built during his tenure as head of the Democratic Governors Association, though, could help him build a network. 

But if Clinton runs in 2016, don't expect to to see Schweitzer take the plunge. 

"If Hillary runs, she walks away with the nomination and then beats whichever Republican," Schweitzer told AP. "It's lights out."

Discerning what Schweitzer will do next is no easy task. State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Elliot said he has "no idea" what Schweitzer is likely to do. 

Sure, the governor hasn't shied away from national media appearances and isn't shutting the door on a White House bid. But he could just as easily find that with his legacy intact, another campaign may not be worth it. 

"Blah blah blah blah blah. I’ll fish in the morning. And maybe drink beer in the afternoon. And if someone calls and complains about their road or schools, I’ll give them the phone number of someone over at the state government," Schweitzer told National Journal in 2011, when asked about 2014. 

Until he makes his intentions known, though, its a safe bet that Schweitzer's name will continue to come up in conversations about 2016.

Sean Sullivan covers national politics for “The Fix.”
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