Schweitzer’s decision leaves Democrats scrambling in Montana

Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s (D) decision against running for the Senate has left frustrated Democrats scrambling for a replacement.

Even as Democrats digest Schweitzer’s surprise weekend announcement, they began floating the names of potential fallback candidates. 

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EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock, state Auditor Monica Lindeen (D) and State Superintendent Denise Juneau (D) are all being touted as possible contenders for the Montana seat.

Democrats in the state say Schweitzer’s decision came as a shock — many had been expecting him to announce a campaign — and admit it complicates their goal of holding onto retiring Sen. Max Baucus’s (D-Mont.) seat.  

“It took us by surprise. People were hopeful he was going to run. He’s very well-respected and well-liked in Montana,” said Montana Democratic Party Vice Chairwoman Nancy Anderson.

“People were waiting to see what Brian was going to do. Now, names are floating up, and I imagine there are names we haven’t even heard of yet. We will go forward and support our party’s candidates, and we’ll see what happens from that point forward.”


Schweitzer didn’t help his party with the timing and approach to his decision. 

He talked to few people outside his close circle of advisers about his thinking and made the announcement in a Saturday interview with The Associated Press without giving party leaders in the state a heads-up. 

Montana Democrats, who were in the midst of their annual party convention, found out about his decision by reading the newspaper.

“It was a surprise,” said Montana Democratic strategist Aaron Murphy, who was Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-Mont.) campaign communications director in 2012. 

“The effort begins now of really casting a wide net to make sure Democrats aren’t going to just stick to one name but rather open up a whole slate of options for folks. We can win this race, and we will, and it’s a matter of putting a good person forward.”

Schriock would likely have the strongest ability to kick-start a campaign, given her national fundraising connections and knowledge of the state. 

The Montana native ran Tester’s (D-Mont.) successful 2006 race. She later served as his Senate chief of staff and is well-known among Montana’s Democratic activists. 

She now runs one of the Democratic Party’s best-funded outside organizations, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights.

“I know Stephanie Schriock could really be a contender if she wants this,” said Murphy, who worked with Schriock on Tester’s 2006 race. 

“She has the ability to raise a lot of money. If she wants it, I don’t think we’re at square one at all … She’s smart as hell. I haven’t heard directly from her since Saturday that she’d want this, but if she does, watch out.”

Schriock has previously said she was mulling a Senate bid. 

An EMILY’s List spokeswoman said there were no updates on Schriock’s thinking about the race since Schweitzer’s decision.

It’s unclear how a candidate best known for her support of abortion rights would play in the GOP-leaning state, though Montana voters are known for their strong libertarian tendencies. 

The state passed a parental notification requirement for teen abortion in 2012 by a comfortable margin, making it the last red state in the nation to have such a law. 

A 2011 poll from Lee Newspapers showed a strong opposition to a “personhood amendment,” to establish legal rights for fertilized embryos, in the state.

Juneau and Lindeen have also both won statewide, though some Democrats say neither has the political skills and charisma of Schriock.

Other names mentioned by Democrats watching the race are Montana Supreme Court Justice Brian Morris (D), a former Stanford University football player; and state Sen. Kendall Van Dyke (D).

On the GOP side, freshman Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) is the most likely candidate. 

Daines has been ramping up his fundraising and talking to strategists in and out of the state as he takes a hard look at the race, though he hasn’t announced a decision yet.

Democrats pointed out that many of their prospective candidates were female and promised to push the “GOP war on women” attack against Daines. 

The congressman supports a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and opposes requiring employers to provide contraception.

Daines led both Juneau and Lindeen by double-digit margins in a recent poll conducted by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling. Schriock wasn’t included in the survey.

In that same poll, Schweitzer led Daines by 48 percent to 45 percent.

Some Democrats argued that Schweitzer’s decision to stay on the sidelines could prove to be a blessing.

“Republicans are right about one thing: Schweitzer was a treasure trove for opposition research,” one Democrat said.

“The likelihood Schweitzer was going to self-combust was pretty high. The guy is a dynamo, and the thing about dynamite is it tends to blow up. There are a number of names of Democrats that are considering running. They’d start the race as the underdog, but they’d start off with a better chance of making it to the finish line.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), in an email Monday to supporters, claimed credit for Schweitzer’s decision to bypass the race.

“The reason Brian Schweitzer decided not to run? I believe that he feared the information that we uncovered,” wrote Sen. Jerry Moran (Kan.), the NRSC chairman, without citing any details. 

“That information, combined with how unpopular the Democrat agenda of higher taxes, bankrupting spending, and the ObamaCare train wreck is in Montana these days kept the governor out.”