by Erin Billings
Marc Racicot is probably Montana’s most nationally
recognized political figure today. But he is a conundrum.
Despite spending the better part
of three decades in politics and recently leading President
George Bush’s reelection campaign, Racicot doesn’t
view himself as a hard-edged partisan. Nor does he see himself as
a Washington insider, a political operative, or a top Republican
strategist. All of this, even though the Thompson Falls native
recently spent a good share of each week on the stump for Bush,
is a ubiquitous presence on the national talk show circuit, and
has been one of the President’s chief advisers for more
than three years.
Racicot, joined by President Bush and Secretary of State Colin
Powell, speaks at a press conference in the Rose Garden.
Racicot was traveling with the Texas governor on an official
trip to Israel when Bush decided to run for the presidency, and
he was the first of many Republican governors to support
Bush’s candidacy for the White House. The two have been
close ever since. So close that Bush called on him in late
2000—when Racicot was exiting his second term as
governor—to set up camp in Florida to defend the Republican
position on the controversial presidential recount.
It is this friendship that pulled Racicot into the national
spotlight and made him part of Bush’s intimate circle.
“I couldn’t do this for just anyone,” Racicot
says. “This is very personal to me. It’s done out of
our relationship. It’s done out of our
The bags under Racicot’s eyes that deepened in Florida
have softened now, but he still appears tired and has a few more
gray hairs than when he left Helena in January 2001. He’s
been traveling almost nonstop since he moved to Washington, D.C.,
three years ago, something he didn’t anticipate when he
first took the challenge.
In January 2002, after just a few months in D.C., Bush tapped
Racicot to run the Republican National Committee, a position
Racicot held for just over a year. Then, in June 2003, Bush moved
Racicot to his presidential campaign, first in a part-time
capacity and later to fulltime. “There was no definition of
what was going to happen,” Racicot says of his tour of duty
with Bush. After three years, he says, “I’ve learned
not to make predictions.”
It has been a whirlwind for the Montana native and one not
without obstacles. Racicot came under fire when he first started
at the RNC after he insisted he would continue to lobby Congress
on behalf of several major corporations while heading the GOP.
Democrats were up in arms over the prospect, and Racicot later
put his clients on hold.
While heading the RNC, Racicot stumped in forty-eight states
for Republican candidates. Besides the lobbying controversy,
Racicot earned mixed reviews there, with many Beltway insiders
calling him too soft and prone to public blunders. Some argued
that the former Montana governor was far too honest for the role
and wasn’t tough enough with spin to be the party’s
Others, however, said Racicot was doing exactly what Bush
wanted and needed—presenting the newly elected President as
a compassionate conservative who wasn’t overly partisan or
divisive. “What he was in 2001 and 2002 was a calming
effect for Bush,” says Montana U.S. Representative Denny
Rehberg, who served as Racicot’s lieutenant governor in his
first term as governor.
Rehberg says Racicot has always held his composure, stemming
from his early days as a star high school basketball player when
he never wanted to lose his cool in front of his then coach, his
father. “I’ve always marveled at the fact that he
could have hundreds of angry constituents come up to Helena and
by the time they left his office they may not have agreed with
him, but at least they understood him,” Rehberg says.
A Montana childhood, bringing with it a sense of community, a
sense of trust, and strong personal relationships, gave Racicot
the foundation he needed to thrive in D.C. “I watched my
parents growing up,” he says. “They were so involved
in their community, whether it was at church or school or
community affairs. I got steeped in the notion that everyone was
involved. So, I wanted to be involved, too.”
Racicot received his undergraduate degree from Carroll College
in Helena, where he played football for the Fighting Saints, then
moved to Missoula for law school. He left UM in 1973 with his law
degree, a self-described average student. Racicot is quick to
explain that his lackluster grade point average was not a measure
of the quality of his UM education. Rather, Racicot, says, he
just wasn’t a brilliant student. But he made good use of
what he’d learned at UM in the U.S. Army, the Missoula
county attorney’s office, and later the state capital,
where he worked as a prosecutor—a career he spent the
better part of a decade pursuing.
The law school perhaps gave Racicot some of his most lasting
trademarks: a love of delving into complicated issues and
weighing them carefully and the predisposition to remain detached
while making a decision. “The exposure to that quality of
education inspired me to pursue issues deeply,” he says.
Racicot becomes reflective when he talks about Montana, and what
he misses the most about his home state. Beyond the landscape
that he can’t shake from his mind, it’s the people:
elsewhere across the country and in D.C., in particular, the
people are more guarded a little more removed, and certainly
quieter in their approach, Racicot says.
What he remembers so clearly about Montana are the numerous
times he would get caught shopping at the Wal-Mart or eating at a
Helena restaurant only to find himself surrounded by people
wanting to tell him what they thought of him and his decisions.
And they weren’t always happy with the former governor.
“I’m just not sure that’s possible in other
places,” he says.
Racicot acknowledges some would naturally view him as a
partisan insider these days, but the man Montana conservatives
once lambasted for being too moderate and deliberative insists he
hasn’t changed. Racicot says that the age of
twenty-four-hour news cycles and a competitive campaign
environment—in which parties must immediately respond to
one another’s attacks—paint him in an inaccurate
light. “If I had a problem with conscience, I would state
it,” Racicot says. “I probably appear to be more
partisan than I am. But I am advocating the issues on [President
According to Jim Lopach, UM political science professor,
“despite what Racicot says” many Democrats now view
him as a political hatchet man for Bush and the Republican party.
“The bottom line here is that Marc Racicot cannot honestly
escape the label of a partisan Republican,” Lopach says.
“However, I think he is far more moderate, civil, and
likeable than some of his colleagues.”
High-profile Democrats agree. Celinda Lake, president of the
national Democratic polling firm Lake, Snell and Perry, finds it
somewhat humorous Racicot cannot look in the mirror and see a
highly partisan Republican. She says, like it or not, as chairman
of the Bush campaign, Racicot’s role was one of a
politically charged figure assigned to attack Democratic
presidential hopeful John Kerry.
Lake concedes Racicot worked well with both parties as
Montana’s governor, saying then “he had Democratic
allies.” But, she says that if Racicot’s self-image
now is one of a moderate, non-partisan figure, he needs a reality
| Racicot chats with a student following his
Commencement address at UM in 2001.
Many people inside and outside Montana have anticipated
another Racicot campaign, notably the possibility of him
challenging U.S. Senator Max Baucus, another well-known Montana
politician. But Racicot—who spent eight years as
Montana’s governor and four as attorney general—is
(almost) insistent he will never run for political office again.
“I would never say never,” he hedges in a recent
interview. “But it’s hard for me to imagine at
fifty-six years old, with all of these children and
grandchildren. It’s hard for me to envision a circumstance
in which I would run for office again.”
To run for office, Racicot would have to return home to
Montana, a move he says is in his future, but probably not the
immediate future. It’s been a while since he’s been
back to Montana, and he rarely can catch a Carroll College or UM
sporting event—though he checks the scores religiously.
Racicot admits with some sadness it’s been three years
since he’s watched his brother Tim coach a Frenchtown High
School football game.
Perhaps there is less personal draw to Montana now since his
wife Theresa is living in D.C., too, and most of his five
children are spread across the country. Only one daughter,
Theresa Rose, is still in Big Sky Country. Even so, Racicot says
he has “no doubt” about moving home sometime. Not
that he has much time to think about it.
As President Bush’s campaign chairman, Racicot was on
the road a good share of each week during the campaign, coming
back to Washington only to prepare for the Sunday talk show
circuit. On any given weekend, Racicot says he may fly back to
the nation’s capital on Saturday, wake at 6 a.m. to read
the newspapers, and be at the studio by 9:45 a.m. At 10:30,
he’s taping a show and by noon, he’s already put in
five hours of work as one of Bush’s most vocal advocates
and policy defenders. That’s an easy job, Racicot says,
because whatever the issue—stem cell research, the war in
Iraq, Medicare reform—he and Bush share common ground.
“I don’t think he’s perfect,” Racicot
says, but quickly begins ticking off a whole host of issues on
which they agree.
Then, without missing a beat, Racicot explains why he believes
he and Bush connect on such a personal level. He says they share
mutual trust and Bush likes the way Racicot handles himself on
the trail. “He told me he likes the tone that I
bring,” Racicot says.
“He’s a utility infielder,” Rehberg adds.
“He’s got to be one of the president’s closest
friends. Marc is his confidant. He’s the guy behind the
scenes you will never see writing a book about inner
conversations on Air Force One. In this business those people are
Ed Gillespie, who succeeded Racicot as chairman of the RNC,
believes Racicot can be partisan when he needs to, but does so in
a “very measured, very kind” way that works for Bush.
“It’s a reflection of the kind of approach to
politics that Marc Racicot takes,” Gillespie says, adding
that Racicot doesn’t subscribe to the idea that “to
be effective you have to be willing to throw mud.”
Racicot says stumping for Bush nationally wasn’t all
that different from his campaign experience in Montana. His focus
was raising money, encouraging core Republicans to vote and
reaching out to swing voters to convince them Bush is their
candidate. “The scale is obviously different, but when it
comes to the operational dynamics there are similarities between
the two,” Racicot says.
Racicot’s position with the Bush campaign expired on
November 2 with the President’s reelection. When
interviewed during the campaign, Racicot’s plans after the
race were to resume his practice as a law partner at D.C. firm of
Bracewell & Patterson. He thinks about expanding the firm in the
Pacific Northwest, nearer to Montana and the landscape and people
he is most comfortable with.
Racicot may have other options, however. It’s widely
rumored that he would be offered a position in a second Bush
White House. Republicans and Democrats alike are convinced
Racicot will land somewhere in a second Bush Administration,
perhaps as the next U.S. Attorney General, policy adviser, or
cabinet secretary. That kind of talk makes Racicot visibly
“If the president wanted me to do something,”
Racicot says, his voice trailing off as if to change his thought
mid-sentence. “It would be presumptive. I don’t see
that happening.” Ironically, Racicot said those same words
at the end of his term as governor when asked whether he would
serve in a Bush cabinet.
The circumstances in 2004 may be ripe for Racicot’s
advancement, however, since Bush won’t have to worry about
another difficult re- election campaign and appeasing all wings
of his party. “Bush will have a lot more freedom to govern
than he did in his first term,” says Lopach, who has
tracked Racicot’s career for years. “It would not
surprise me at all that he would accept a high level position as
a policy adviser.”
Racicot has come a long way from the days of leading Montana,
which he left to mixed reviews and a divided state. While Racicot
turned state deficits into surpluses and arguably governed from
the middle throughout his tenure, one of his final acts was to
sign into law the controversial deregulation of the state’s
utilities that still has many Montanans seething.
Lopach describes the deregulation law as “a cloud”
Racicot left over the state, saying it was an unfortunate
decision and no matter how he likes to remember it, he was part
of it. Racicot makes no apologies for deregulation or any other
policy decision, although without giving specifics does admit
“not everything I did was right.” He hopes his legacy
is his approach, saying he will be remembered for “the
character of my service and the civility of it.”
None of this is surprising from a man who arguably began
politics with some ambivalence. Born into a largely Democratic
family, Racicot was rumored to have debated his party affiliation
before he ran for attorney general in 1988. Racicot laughs now
about his parents’ political ties. He describes his late
father, a lifelong Democrat, as having been “evolving
politically” over the years, even voting for Republican
Ronald Reagan in 1980. “He admitted that in 1984,” he
says. Asked what his father would think of Racicot now, and his
prominent national position, he again quips: “There would
be special challenges, with him offering commentary if he were
Racicot first ran for office at age thirty-one, setting his
sights high on the Montana Supreme Court chief justice race.
Racicot lost that bid and two more before he found success
running as a Republican in the attorney general’s race
against Democrat Mike McGrath.
Racicot acknowledges now that when he sought the chief justice
slot—with no experience aside from serving as a state
prosecutor—he probably wasn’t ready to dive into
politics. But he says he was angered by the direction of the
court at the time and wanted to try to change it.
“Many thought it was unwise to run. They knew it was a
steep uphill climb, but I thought it was important,”
Racicot says now, laughing. All of his campaign experiences in
Montana prepared him well for his role nationally, he says.
Coming to D.C., he says, “has been good for me” and
he finds himself energized by the frenetic pace of the
At the same time, however, Racicot says he feels himself
getting older, and as he does, he says the desire grows “to
replace frenzy with sanity.” Leaving the state when he did,
while difficult, was the right move, Racicot says now. He says it
was time to let new leaders emerge and direct the state without
“This has been an opportunity for me to catch my breath
and gain perspective,” Racicot says. “It’s been
good for everyone that I made thistransition so complete.
It’s been good for me.”
Billings, M.A. ’95, is a staff writer for the Capitol Hill
newspaper Roll Call in Washington, D.C. Prior to her current
position, she worked as a reporter for the Montana Standard in
Butte and at the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena, where she
covered Governor Racicot for more than five years.
Discuss this article in Montanan