GOP looks to Bush confidant in Montana Senate race

Updated
File Photo: Former U.S.  President George W. Bush addresses the audience during the George W. Bush Presidential Center groundbreaking ceremony on November 16...
File Photo: Former U.S. President George W. Bush addresses the audience during the George W. Bush Presidential Center groundbreaking ceremony on November 16...
Tom Pennington/Getty Images/File

National Republicans are looking to one of former President George W. Bush’s  closest allies as their savior in the now-open Montana Senate race – former Gov. Marc Racicot.

Following Sen. Max Baucus’ (D-Mont.) surprise retirement on Tuesday, Democrats were immediately championing former Gov. Brian Schweitzer as an even better alternative to the departing Baucus. But Republicans are hoping that Racicot, a former Republican National Committee chairman, will enter the race on the GOP side.

Racicot’s potential re-emergence on the national scene comes just as the former governor’s close friend and ally bursts back into the news as well, with Thursday’s dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. And with many close ties to the former president, examining their shared legacy would be a critical part of any campaign.

But while Bush’s approval ratings are still depressed in some states, Montana isn’t necessarily one of those places. Bush carried the state by more than 20 points in both 2000 and 2004. In 2012, Obama captured 42% in the Treasure State.

In fact it’s Schweitzer’s ties to the current president that could be the more damaging, with Republicans quick to point to the Democrat’s vocal support for a single-payer health care system. If, somehow, the race becomes the Bush candidate versus the Obama candidate, the former president’s friend may have the advantage on that scale.

“In Montana, if the image is Bush with Racicot or Schweitzer campaigning with Obama, we’ll take the former any day and Sunday,” said one national GOP strategist.

Racicot, 64, served as governor of Montana from 1993 until 2001. Prior to his 1992 win, Racicot had served as the state’s attorney general. Racicot had a very close relationship with Bush, and the president appointed him to lead the RNC from 2002 until 2003, when he left to chair Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. Since then, he’s worked as a lawyer and lobbyist.

A 2009 profile of Racicot in the Great Falls Tribune notes his soaring popularity during his term–over 87% in a 1998 poll–and MSU-Billings professor called Racicot a “a straight shooter” who’s “extremely well spoken” with a “calm, cool, collected manner.”

National and state Republicans believe Racicot would be their strongest nominee, and the drumbeat for his return began even before Baucus’ exit announcement. Now, with Democrats quickly pointing to Schweitzer’s interest, there’s even more pressure on the GOP to land a top recruit in a seat that, by the numbers, leans their way.

In a February survey from Democratic-aligned Public Policy Polling, Racicot ran the strongest of any Republican, and was in a statistical tie–46% to 45%–with Schweitzer.

The former GOP governor’s favorability was at 41% in that poll, but over a quarter of voters hadn’t heard of him, and he’d still have to re-introduce himself to many in the state. After leaving office last year, Schweitzer had a 56% favorable rating.

But that doesn’t mean Racicot is a sure thing. Montana Republicans point out that the former governor hasn’t been in office for nearly a decade and there’s some hesitancy to re-enter public life. Some doubt Racicot is gunning to jump in, though several sources said he is considering entreaties his way.

If Racicot declines, the torch could be passed to the state’s current at-large Rep. Steve Daines, just elected this year. It’s doubtful Daines would run if Racicot does, but the freshman congressman is also looking seriously at the race, and the Republican impressed many with the campaign he ran last time.

“If Daines is an 800-pound gorilla in the room, he’s the 1600-pound gorilla,” said one longtime Montana GOP consultant, while another national strategist noted, “both are strong; Racicot is an A+ candidate and Daines is an A candidate.”

GOP looks to Bush confidant in Montana Senate race

Updated