If you want to get former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer talking, take him out riding a paint horse named Yukon up the foothills of the state’s Anaconda Range, through lodgepole forests to a place so wide open and silent you can see for 30 miles and hear the next horse breathe at 20 paces. This is where he was raised, nearly two miles above sea level, and where he still lives, over dirt packed with silver, copper and sapphire, and grass that feeds some of the priciest pure-bred stock in the world.
If Schweitzer runs for President in 2016, as he has been hinting in recent months, this is the country he will be angling to leave behind for an Oval Office literally built on a swamp. That’s a problem Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and the rest need not fret over. “If I win, I have the most to lose,” he says, turning his speckled horse to take in the view, with the snow-capped Pintlers to the south and the Bitterroot Range in the west. “It would ruin my life.”
Maybe so, but Schweitzer can’t seem to help himself. Even before he left the stables, he was spinning tales meant to impress a reporter he’d invited West to prod at his presidential ambitions. He told about the time a friend of his father “may or may not” have hidden an off-season elk carcass from the game warden in his family grain bin. And about the bar in a town named Monarch where he was first served alcohol at 15: “It turns out they just didn’t care.” And about his wife Nancy, who changed a blown-out tire while he waited inside the same watering hole: “I just thought, Hell, I’ll keep her, and now it’s been 32 years.”
Schweitzer left the Governor’s Office 17 months ago, but there’s hardly an issue on which he lacks an opinion–and hardly an opinion he is not eager to share. He thinks Chris Christie’s chances are overblown, speaks highly of Rand Paul’s fury over domestic data collection by the NSA and offers no sanctuary for his own party. “Democrats have a way of getting the rope tied around their legs,” he says. “There is enough dumbassery to go around.”
The last part is what makes Schweitzer stand out at the moment, and not just for the salty language. Democrats are, on the whole, a clan united, with a re-elected President, a generational demographic tailwind, and a Republican Party consumed by civil strife. They also have a designated heir apparent in Hillary Clinton, who has the support of nearly 7 in 10 Democrats for the 2016 nomination, according to recent polls. Her clout is such that Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley got her O.K. before embarking on his own prospective 2016 campaign.
Schweitzer is different, a showman populist from a state where folks could legally drink beer while driving until 2005. He describes both Clinton and Obama as compromised creatures of Washington, unnecessarily beholden to big-money politics and tarnished by side deals. “Do you think he has some core values?” Schweitzer will ask about Obama, whom he blames for caving to the pharmaceutical and insurance lobbies during the drafting of health care reform. “You can’t be a candidate that shakes down more money on Wall Street than anybody since, I don’t know, Woodrow Wilson and be a populist,” he says of Clinton, who recently has been giving six-figure speeches for clients like Goldman Sachs. “You can’t be the one to say we’re going to focus on rebuilding America if you voted to go to the Iraq War.”
That’s the sound of someone picking a fight, and it comes as the party wrestles with the wisdom of going the coronation route in 2016. Al Gore was the last Democrat to run in a general election without losing a primary, and he proved himself a greener campaigner than George W. Bush when he got to the big show. It’s been eight years since Clinton endured the brutal hazing of a primary; she undoubtedly made Obama stronger for it.
And so Schweitzer is testing the waters, even as he continues to build a separate career. He’s the chairman of a palladium-mining company, he plans to officiate at the wedding of the woman who owns his local hardware store and he has been fixing up and flipping ranch land all around Montana. But he has also been writing a prospective campaign book, which he says “may or may not” be published next year, and he has signed a contract with MSNBC that will give him national exposure. He says he’s been talking with his family, including three grown children and five siblings, about throwing his hat in the ring.
The question may be less whether Schweitzer needs the Democratic Party than whether the Democratic Party needs someone like Schweitzer, a lefty-libertarian soil scientist with a résumé built for the early-primary and caucus states. He would not bring a national organization or many billionaire donors to the race, but he could easily spark a conversation about whether the Democratic Party has become too comfortable with its success. “No knock on Hillary, and you are not going to get that out of me,” Schweitzer says atop Yukon, before describing one of her potential vulnerabilities in a Republican attack. “Elections are about the future. Anytime they can make an election about the past, they are going to win.”
“I Have a Lot of Guns”
A few years before leaving the governor’s office, Schweitzer built himself a new home on a dammed lake near Butte. Few rooms were given as much attention as his basement bathroom, across from the pool table and the well-stocked bar. It has both a toilet and a urinal, and the walls, hung with trophies from Schweitzer’s life, come as close as anything to a self-portrait.
There are pictures of him posing with Obama, with the liberal troubadours Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp and with Shimon Peres, the President of Israel. There is a sketch of a naked cowboy opening his trench coat to flash a herd of cattle, with the caption, “Isn’t it great knowing at your age you can still draw a crowd?” Then comes the famous series of photos of Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1957, towering over and poking at Senator Theodore Green of tiny Rhode Island. “That’s how a chief executive gets things done,” Schweitzer says, pointing away.
When Schweitzer first burst onto the national Democratic scene, the talk in the party was that it needed some testosterone. The swaggering Bush had just coasted to re-election in 2004 on tough-guy, with-us-or-against-us talk. National Democrats felt like they’d been made victims of a clever Frenchification campaign by Karl Rove, and out West, Schweitzer, standing several inches over six feet, with sideburns down to his earlobes, had just won the top job in Helena.
Schweitzer bused seniors across the Canadian border to buy cheaper prescription drugs, shot skeet with a 12-gauge in his campaign ads and was so mad about the war in Iraq that he refused to tell parents of soldiers who died there that their child’s sacrifice was not in vain. “I couldn’t say that because I didn’t believe it,” he says . As governor over two terms, he ran growing surpluses even throughout the Great Recession without raising a tax or fee, largely by cutting costs. He didn’t just veto Republican bills that tried to restrict women’s access to abortion; he rejected them with a branding iron shaped into the word veto while wearing blue jeans held up with a belt buckle nearly the size of a salad plate.
His theatrics won him attention and got him elected to head the Democratic Governors Association, but in the meantime, his party shifted. Democrats took back Congress in 2006 and then the White House in 2008 not by making inroads with libertarian whites of the Mountain West but by turning out the next generation of younger, more diverse voters in the cities and suburbs of the big swing states. And rather than follow Schweitzer’s populist prescriptions, the new Democrats cut deals with all sorts of industries in Washington to get stuff done.
A gulf grew between Schweitzer and his party’s leaders. In 2009, Obama came through Montana on his way to a family vacation, just as he was trying to negotiate health care reform with Republicans. Schweitzer introduced his President at a rally by calling for the public option and praising the Canadian health system, all of it off message. His relationship with Montana’s Democratic Senator Max Baucus, who was then drafting the bill, went from rough to hostile. Schweitzer says Obama asked him to turn down the volume.
Then in 2013, when Baucus announced he would retire, Democrats scrambled to recruit Schweitzer to run for the seat, knowing he had a great shot at winning. Schweitzer explored the possibility, calling West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, another former governor, to ask if he liked the shift to legislative work. “I hate it,” said Manchin, who was having a rough day and jokes often with Schweitzer. “You are going to shoot somebody if you come back here, Brian.” Schweitzer smiles telling the story months later. “I said, ‘Don’t say that. You know I have a lot of guns.’ ”
Schweitzer passed on the opportunity and began to mull a presidential campaign. “He always said, ‘Fishing in the morning and whiskey in the afternoon,'” Evan Barrett, a longtime adviser, says of the governor’s retirement plans. “Now it’s fishing in the morning and phone calls in the afternoon.”
Rough and Ready
Schweitzer may never fit into the party that Barack built. He called Senator John McCain “Grumps” and boasted about his efforts to encourage Montana girls to study engineering as a “chicks in science” program. His opposition to most kinds of gun control and his past support for clean coal could hurt him, even if he supports increased background checks and the new Obama carbon regulations.
Still, he seems to have planned out how he might run. “Maybe I need to remind you, I can talk to the people of Iowa. They can listen to a lawyer–or whatever number of lawyers there are–or they can listen to an agricultural scientist. You tell me which they would want to hear.” In New Hampshire, he would boast of his efforts to reject Bush’s plan to institute a national ID card. To woo South Carolina’s Democrats, he would note the efforts he made to promote Native Americans in his administration and increase statewide diversity education. Is it enough? Hard to figure. “He is an excellent politician,” says Jon Selib, a former chief of staff to Baucus. “But the fact that Brian is against Obamacare, is against gun control and is pro-coal makes it very hard for me to see how he would win the Democratic primary.”
Across the lake from Schweitzer’s house is the 7 Gables, a bar with a snowmobile lot out front and a well-appointed cast of characters nursing their cans inside, from a wrinkled gold miner to the wife of a militia leader. Fox News plays on the tube, and Schweitzer is welcomed like royalty. If the primary were held here, he would win walking away. But even here, the obstacles pop up. “I would have a hard time if you run against Hillary,” says Dan Calnan, one of the patrons, when Schweitzer ambles in. “But I would like to vote for you.”
Schweitzer doesn’t miss a beat. He has been practicing his lines for months. He leans over Calnan’s face, just like LBJ over Green, a pint in hand. “Once you have been in Washington for five years, or 25 years …” he begins, before describing the corrupting effects of campaign cash and lobbyists and the need for an outsider to redirect the country. A full minute passes before Calnan can get a word in edgewise.
Iowans be warned. Brian Schweitzer is getting ready.
This appears in the June 16, 2014 issue of TIME.