It almost seems comical. A a pro-gun, pro-coal former Democratic governor of a small red state with zero national name recognition who used a branding iron to veto bills from the Republican legislature challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination?
On the surface, the idea that Brian Schweitzer would have a ghost of a chance against the former Senator from New York and Secretary of State seems delusional. Indeed, Schweitzer himself said last year that he expected Clinton to breeze to the nomination and beat any Republican in the general election.
Has the political landscape changed that much in a year? Schweitzer himself hit upon Clinton’s major weakness in an interview with RCP”:
“There’s a whole lot of America that looks at each other and says, ‘Well, there’s 340 million people living in America. Isn’t there somebody other than a Bush or a Clinton who can be president in these modern times? Isn’t there hope for somebody who’s running a business or who has served overseas or comes from a different occupation to become president? Are we now in the era of royalty again?’ So I think there’s some level of frustration about that.”
Schweitzer is articulating the exhaustion felt by many voters with the hyper-partisan, dysfunctional politics of Washington. And since there’s every indication it is only going to get worse over the next three years of the Obama administration, why not a smiling, likable populist from the romantic west whose unquestioned popularity in Montana that crosses party lines could translate into victory in the 2016 general election?
Shortly after leaving office, Schweitzer executed a hostile takeover of Stillwater Mining — the largest publicly traded mining company in Montana. He also owns several ranches across the state.
His latest comments about potentially running against Clinton are in stark contrast to an appraisal he made to the Associated Press a year ago. At that time, Schweitzer said, “If Hillary runs, she walks away with the nomination and then beats whichever Republican.”
But as he has settled into his private sector role, Schweitzer’s views on whether anyone can beat the former senator and secretary of state appear to have changed significantly.
After being term-limited last year, he was heavily recruited by national Democrats to run for his state’s open Senate seat in 2014 but announced in July that he would not do so.
His heavy use of the veto pen — or veto branding iron, in his case — and reputation as a competent fiscal steward earned him consistently high approval ratings in Republican-leaning Montana.
Schweitzer’s tough-talking leadership style, anti-Washington ethos, and proven ability to win in a state that has not been friendly to his own party in presidential elections might draw Democratic comparisons to New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie, another 2016 presidential aspirant.
But the pro-gun, pro-coal policies that worked for Schweitzer so well in Montana would be a far tougher sell in a Democratic primary.
Another of Schweitzer’s most immediate challenges in mounting a serious campaign would be to build his name recognition against the universally known and already nearly anointed Clinton.
But in the interview with RCP, Schweitzer suggested that his down-home persona and knack for generating free media coverage might keep him in the hunt, particularly in Iowa — a state that has not been friendly territory for Clinton in the past.
“Who would’ve thunk Obama would come out of this thing when you had, my God, Dodd, Biden, Billy Richardson, Hillary Clinton,” Schweitzer said of the 2008 Democratic nominating contest. “So the nice thing about the people of Iowa is they ain’t going to let the rest of America make up their minds for them.”
Some of Schweitzer’s views are out of the mainstream of the Democratic party. He signed an innovative pro-gun bill that exempted Montana-made firearms from federal regulation. He also vigorously pushed development of Montana’s huge coal reserves.
But on the flip side, he also promoted renewable energy for the state, vastly increasing power generation from wind and solar sources. And his administration was cited for innovative educational reforms, including a universal kindergarten program.
In short, Schweitzer could be considered a mainstream Democrat. Unfortunately, that’s not the profile of the average Democratic primary voter, who tend to be much more liberal. Still, Schweitzer has a populist streak that might appeal to some of those liberals looking for a credible alternative to Hillary Clinton.
At the moment, the liberal darling Elizabeth Warren is being encouraged to look into making a run. And Maryland’s very liberal Governor Martin O’Malley has let it be known he is seriously contemplating entering the race as well. Warren is a long shot to make a go of it and O’Malley doesn’t excite too many people on the left. Might this mean that there is room for someone of Schweitzer’s unique personae and abilities to challenge the front runner?
Hillary’s run for the nomination is looking less and less like a coronation after all.