Republicans Call the Governor “Beatable,” But He’s Still Unchallenged

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who swept into office as the new face of Western Democrats, draws plenty of ire from Republicans three years later but has yet to draw an opponent for re-election.

It’s a big change from the flurry of campaign announcements and gubernatorial hopefuls usually seen at this point in an election cycle. There’s no shortage of speculation among Republicans about who might run – just no actual announcements.

Political analysts point to the governor’s popularity and fundraising prowess.

“Despite what the Republicans say, no one is excited about running against him,” said Craig Wilson, a political scientist at Montana State University-Billings.

As governor, Schweitzer guides a state with a solid economy and historically low unemployment rates. He also enjoys relatively high approval ratings and has managed to avoid any fallout from a rancorous legislative session earlier in the year that saw plenty of mudslinging.

He’s proven a savvy politician. In fact, many Republicans accuse him of stealing their issues and adopting them as his own.

Schweitzer is a Democrat who talks about digging for coal, lowering taxes and collecting guns. He seizes on anti-federal government sentiment popular in the West and buoys his populist support by publicly taking on corporations, academics and environmentalists alike – all the while brushing off criticism.

“Most of Montana agrees that we are getting Montana moving again,” Schweitzer said in a recent interview. “And I think what they (Republicans) are finding is that it is difficult to find a groundswell of support to change the management of Montana.”

While Republicans mull a challenge, the governor has spent his time advancing his agenda without opposition and amassing campaign cash. As of Sept. 30, Schweitzer had raised $750,000 and was on pace to exceed his 2004 total when he was the top fundraiser in the state. He has about $452,000 cash on hand, compared to $326,000 in 2003.

In Montana, that’s a sizable amount given candidates are prohibited from taking corporate donations and gubernatorial candidates are limited to individual contributions of $500 per person. In addition, Schweitzer has said he will not take money from political action committees.

Republicans say an announcement from someone could come soon – but the question remains when and who. And with just a year left to the 2008 election, time to assemble support and finances to challenge a well-known incumbent is dwindling.

State Sen. Roy Brown has battled Schweitzer in the Legislature and was re-elected to his Billings seat last year despite Schweitzer’s attempts to help Brown’s opponent. Brown may now run against the governor.

“I don’t think it’s a problem that no one has jumped in yet. There is still a year to go,” Brown said. “There is still plenty of time to put on a credible candidacy.”

Brown said he believes Schweitzer is more vulnerable than the last incumbent governor to seek re-election, Marc Racicot in 1996. That year, Republicans dominated the field. Voters not only backed Racicot overwhelmingly despite some minor criticism from within his own party, they supported Bob Dole for president and gave Republicans a huge advantage in the Legislature.

Eleven years later, Democrats control much of state government and both U.S. Senate seats – prompting some outsiders to speculate that Montana is on its way to becoming a “blue state.” Yet pollsters say Republicans candidates still have a built-in advantage with a large group of conservatives to draw from, but they still need a strong candidate if they want a chance to win.

Former state Senate President Bob Keenan has said he is also considering a run against Schweitzer. The two sparred often in the 2005 Legislature, when Keenan said Schweitzer was all talk and compared him to P.T. Barnum.

Taylor Brown, a well-known radio personality and president of the Northern Ag Network, has said he, too, is mulling a gubernatorial run – or perhaps a challenge to U.S. Sen. Max Baucus.

“I would have to say I am seriously considering running for public office,” Brown said.

One Republican who has ruled out running is state party Chairman Erik Iverson, who also serves as chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana.

“I have a job as party chairman, and that’s the job I’m doing,” Iverson said.

By this time in the 2004 election cycle, there were four candidates in the race. Four years before that, there were also four. But this year, Schweitzer has the stage to himself.

Without a challenger, the state Republican Party has been left to spar with Schweitzer, sending out press releases including one that criticized the amount of money Schweitzer raised from out-of-state donors.

“I think Gov. Schweitzer is beatable,” said Chris Wilcox, the party’s executive director. “Republicans will have a strong candidate against the governor.”

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