First Assessment of the 2014 GOP Senate Field

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.

The Republicans

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.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • I hadn’t seen the PPP poll before. It explains a lot – like, perhaps, one of the reasons Baucus chose not to run. I thought that Schweitzer would have better numbers against Daines and Racicot (BS-48%, SD 45% and BS-45%, MR-46%). Folks must have short memories when it comes to Racicot. Too bad PPP didn’t have a Schweitzer-Rehberg matchup.

    Of course, I only have so much faith in polls as they usually contact old white people who still have landlines. And, as you say, it’s all academic until Schweitzer tells us what he’s going to do. If he isn’t going to run, it would nice for him to say so and give other Democratic candidates a chance to get organized.

    • I think that is going to be an interesting part of this discussion. Schweitzer has no incentive to announce early, as it makes it much harder for everyone else to jump into the race, but if ultimately doesn’t run, it hurts potential Dems more than the Republicans.

      • I think Schweitzer needs to make his decision fairly soon. If he runs, he needs to assemble a staff, lock in consultants, and start raising money. Delay costs opportunities, and the primary is in just 13 months.

        If Schweitzer decides not to run, I think Daines will run and have a very good chance of winning. Otherwise, I expect the Republican nominee will be one of the usual 2nd tier suspects, but I would not rule out a dark horse with deep pockets, someone of the Larry Williams genre.

        Rehberg and Racicot? Never say never, but I’m pretty darn sure they’ll spend a few moments strutting in the limelight, deluding themselves that the love is still there, then say, “Nevermore!”

    • Just for the record, Pete, PPP is very open about their methodology, and they seem better at breaking the ‘old white guys with landlines’ mold. These results seem fairly typical among contenders who haven’t even declared for the seat. The questions might as well have been “popular Democrat against formerly popular Republicant”

    • Pollsters now are calling cellphones as well as landlines. Public Policy did very well in 2012, much better than Gallup, Mason Dixon, and the Montana State Poll. I agree that the numbers will become much more meaningful once the candidates are known.

      • PPP does as good a job as any in the polling industry, Rob and James. Still, according to their own website, they ” … take(s) the voter databases of each available state and append(s) home phone numbers to match each voter.” I suppose that some of these “home phone numbers” could be cell phones but those numbers are a lot harder to track down. And I know of only a few 20 to 40-year-olds who have landlines anymore. But I digress from Pogie’s original content.

  • the whole country is going to be watching this one. I’m sure there is quite a story behind the how and when of Baucus’ announcement. I hope there is a higher caliber strategy than the call of the senate being developed.

      • That was a strategy?

        But I agree with all the comments above. If Brian is going to run, he needs to announce by early next month or he’s royally screwing other Democrats.

        • Schweitzer is a political animal if ever there was one. “Royally screwing other Democrats” who might plan to run for the seat might well be part of his plan should he choose to run. However, since no other Democrat has thrown in as of yet, all he would really be ‘screwing’ are with people’s fantasies of who they would like to run for this seat.

  • Don I’m sure glad you teach english and not history! On Racicot’s re-election you say “his re-election hardly proved his massive support” Really 79% vs 21% ? I guess I need to include math for that matter. As far as helping “steal” Florida he was merely the campagain manager I think you have him confused with Theodore Olson.

    • I don’t mean to suggest you are ill-informed, but you just might want to look up the details of Racicot’s re-election. While he certainly was going to win, it wasn’t quite the mandate you think it was.

      Look it up.

  • Chet Blaylock ran because Racicot was so popular no other Democrat was willing to take a chance. His death right before the election certainly depressed the Democrat vote, but Racicot was going to win by a huge margin anyway.

    The biggest opposition to Racicot came from the right during the Natelson insurgency in the primary. Even though it wasn’t close in the primary, it was pretty close for a party challenge to an incumbent Governor, and it reflected that Racicot was a pretty moderate guy. That made him very popular with the general public, but it would also put him out of step with today’s GOP.

    So while I disagree with you that he was not popular – how can you not like a Carroll College basketball star from Libby? – I do agree he is unlikely to run and would have a harder time in today’s campaign environment than the wishful thinkers from the GWB Washington clique are willing to admit.

  • Put a fork in Stapleton, he’s done.

    Daines will most likely run if Schweitzer does not, and I understand Denise Juneau is making preparations in the event that BS stays out. That raises an interesting question of who will run for the Congressional seat if Daines runs for the Senate? It will be wide open on both sides, and hopefully the Democrats can field a better slate than 2012.

    The smart move would be for Denny Rehberg to run for the Congressional seat. Even though he is underwhelming and Montanans like him less than at any point in his career (except immediately after his 1996 loss to Max Baucus), it would be difficult for any opponent to match his fund-raising and name ID in the House race, and he would likely coast to a win.

    Stephanie Schriock is a name floated by national media for the Senate seat, coming from people who know absolutely nothing about Montana. She has no chance of getting any support here.

    If Daines does not run, there is a Republican dark horse in the wings who is watching and waiting. He is a very good potential candidate who could capture a lot of support and make a lot of headlines. But he won’t run against Schweitzer, so it would be an odd situation where both Schweitzer and Daines stay out. Not, it is not Tom Seibel.

    Schweitzer will be very difficult to beat if he runs. But if he runs, he will have no prospects for 2016. And he will wear out his welcome in the Senate if he stays there long enough. He will get tiresome like Ted Cruz already is – but for different reasons. If BS goes to the Senate, he never goes to the White House. If he comes along as a fresh face outsider who waits for front-runners to stumble, he may pick up the pieces of someone else’s wreck and surge in New Hampshire or wherever. More likely, a liberal like Cuomo or O’Malley (I am assuming Hillary does not run after a 3 year Benghazi tarnish campaign) picks him to balance the ticket. But then, all of this will change 100 times. You should have some kind of moratorium on your blog where no one is allowed to discuss the Road to the White House until 2 years out. Yes, I am inviting you to delete the last paragraph of my post.

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