It all starts, of course, with Governor Brian Schweitzer, who is likely to take his time making this decision.
The only reason I see him not running is that there is some element of risk that could threaten future aspirations for higher office. While he’d certain be the favorite to win a race against any of the Republican candidates, elections are anything but certainties—and a loss to the likes of Denny Rehberg or Steve Daines would cut short any Presidential aspirations Schweitzer might hold.
More about Governor Schweitzer in a future post, but he holds the key to understanding the Republican field.
1. Steve Daines is certainly the strongest candidate Republicans have to offer in this race, but it’s hard to see him taking the risk of a bruising campaign for the Senate after less than a single term in the House. Rick Berg from North Dakota just offered an instructive example for Daines to consider—and Berg wasn’t facing a candidate like Schweitzer.
Daines was able to win his 2012 House race for a few reasons: he was able to say absolutely nothing substantive during the race, faced view critical questions from the media, and his opponent wasn’t able to make much headway given all the attention focused on the race for Governor and Senate. None of these things will be true in 2014.
Still, in recent polling Daines looks competitive against Schweitzer and he has done a lot of working spreading money around to other Republicans in the state, building a network for a run.
Prognosis: Daines will certainly run for Senate if Schweitzer does not (even if Rehberg wants the seat), and will certainly stay out if Schweitzer runs.
2. Denny Rehberg has apparently decided that “family time” might not be the most important thing in his life and is weighing his options for another run.
Prognosis: Much as I would love to see Rehberg defeated by Senator Baucus, Senator Tester, and future Senator Schweitzer during his career, I think Rehberg sits this one out and goes back to his first love, lobbying. He’s never been actually all that interested in the work of government anyway, and would probably prefer to make some more money using his connections in Washington. My guess? We’ll see Rehberg again—in four or eight years—making a bid for Governor, the job I suspect he’s wanted all along.
3. Marc Racicot is something of a white whale for Montana Republicans, who have imagined in successive major elections that the former governor will return to Montana politics, be swarmed by adoring Montanans, and be swept into office. I’ve just never understood this narrative, as Racicot has some serious baggage like utility deregulation on his record and was never actually all that popular. He barely edged Dorothy Bradley in his first election, and his re-election hardly proved his massive support.
The last time major political acts Montanans know Racicot for are a) helping elect Judy Martz governor and b) helping George Bush steal Florida in 2000. Fourteen years is an eternity in politics.
His career as a lobbyist and bag man for the Bush campaign probably wouldn’t hurt him in a Republican primary, but would be deadly in a general election campaign. I also suspect that the modern version of the Republican Party might find some of Racicot’s positions too progressive, as hard as that is to imagine.
Prognosis: No chance that Racicot runs for this seat, or any other elective office in Montana again.
4. Corey Stapleton really wants to be elected to something, but his weak second place finish against Rick Hill in 2012 suggests a candidate without broad support. He’s got a real messaging problem, as he’s trying to simultaneously position himself as a Main Street conservative and TEA Party radical. In the 2012 primary, that got him flanked on both sides.
One note for the Stapleton campaign: enforcement of federal campaign finance violations is a bit more muscular than enforcement here in Montana. Just sayin’.
Prognosis: If the top tier of Daines, Rehberg, and Racicot sit this one out, Stapleton is likely the Republican nominee, continuing the streak of weak GOP candidates for this Senate seat. I also suspect that Stapleton will jump ship for the House race if Daines enters the contest.
5. Champ Edmunds might run for the Senate seat, but there is no chance he will become the Republican nominee. Edmunds is seeking to position himself as the true conservative in the race, but he lacks the kind of institutional support, name recognition, or legislative achievements to make a real bid. The fact that he still hasn’t announced any fundraising numbers, despite being the first candidate out of the gate, says a great deal about his prospects.
Prognosis: Edmunds has said that he will run for the House seat if Steve Daines makes a bid for the Senate, but he has no more chance to win that race than he does the Senate seat. Representative Edmunds will certainly be crying over spilt raw milk in June of 2014.
6. A woman seems unlikely to become the Republican nominee, as none are even mentioned as possible candidates. The contrast here with the names being thrown around for consideration on the Democratic side is striking.
7. Wild Cards: I was convinced that Neil Livingstone’s crazed bid for the governor in 2012 was an attempt to introduce himself for a run against Baucus in 2014. I’d say both Livingstone and Ryan Zinke are potential candidates, but only if Daines and Schweitzer are not in the field. I’ve heard Tim Fox’s name get mentioned, but given his aggressive campaigning style as Attorney General and the path Racicot and Bullock have laid down, my guess is Fox is looking to move to a new office in the Montana capitol, not run for D.C.