HELENA (AP) — Montana's jeans-wearing, gun-toting Democratic governor is stealing the thunder from a tea party-fueled Republican resurgence — and tweaking the new GOP Legislature in the process — with a unique plan from a Democrat to cut business taxes during a flagging economy.
Brian Schweitzer, an expert at reading the shifting political winds, surprised many political observers when he promised businesses millions in tax cuts as part of his budget proposal earlier this month.
Tax cut means more jobs
The Democrat said a tax cut for companies would mean more jobs for Montanans — all at a time when some states are simply trying to figure out how to keep schools open.
Around the same time, the Democrat who loves to get on Fox News riled health care advocates by looking for ways to privatize Medicaid, and continued to take jabs at the national health care plan that others in his state party fought hard to win.
Governor does well in polls
And the governor's unique approach keeps working, according to political scientist Craig Wilson, who says Schweitzer routinely is among the most popular elected officials in his statewide polls. He said that remains true even as Democrats suffered tremendously this election in red states like Montana.
Wilson said no one should have been surprised Schweitzer beat a newly elected GOP majority in the Legislature to the punch by being the first to propose tax cuts.
"That is the way the wind is blowing," Wilson said of the recent elections, "and so since the wind is blowing that way you might as well go with it instead of walk against it."
When Schweitzer asked GOP leaders in their first meeting last week for agreement on his tax cut plan that includes $150 in property tax rebates for homeowners — the Republican leaders were left grousing about a one-time transfer of money from various state accounts that is not likely to resonate strongly with voters.
Schweitzer is obviously confident public opinion will be on the side of his proposal to eliminate the business equipment tax for all but the largest 425 corporations in the state — not with lawmakers worried about a notion known as "structural balance."
Montana is among just a few states buoyed by natural resource development that largely stayed out of financial trouble through the recession. Schweitzer is airing television ads aimed at business travelers that asks: "How long until your state's red ink rubs off on your business?"
"When you are in a competition, when you are pulling a dog sled, you don't want to be the dog in back. You want to be the dog in front. It looks better and smells better from there. That's where we want to be," Schweitzer said. "That's just smart business. You can call it a Republican or Democrat or unicorn idea. But it's just smart."
Although popular with voters, Schweitzer has riled plenty of legislators and political insiders from both parties. Lawmakers have alternatively proclaimed him a bully — or far worse — and a genius. But he usually gets his way — or something close to it.
His skills will be tested anew with Montana Republicans seizing a 68-32 majority in the House and holding onto control of the state Senate. The governor, always confident, says that GOP lawmakers currently promising big cuts to services as a way to avoid the raids on special state accounts will end up far closer to his plan in the end.
"Why? That is the way it has always been before," Schweitzer said.
Few politicians enjoy the job as much as Schweitzer, who pre-emptively calls reporters — at all hours — on tough news stories that would send many elected officials scurrying behind a wall of handlers and shuttered doors.
Schweitzer faces term limits and can't run for a job he obviously loves. No other options seem obvious.
Both U.S. Senate seats are held by fellow Democrats. But publicly cool relations between him and senior U.S. Sen. Max Baucus have left many speculating about a potential Schweitzer primary run in 2014, a notion that he dismisses with jokes about the stench of Washington D.C.
It is hard to see a governor who enjoys bare-knuckled politics as much as
Schweitzer simply walking away as a lame-duck, said Wilson.
"He is still out there making political waves and having a good time doing it," the political scientist said.
Schweitzer dismisses any speculation about running for Congress or anything else.