By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - Former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer cited gridlock in Washington on Monday for his unexpected decision to sit out next year's race for the U.S. Senate seat of a retiring fellow Democrat, but left open the door for a possible presidential bid in 2016.
Schweitzer, a rancher turned politician known for his folksy speaking style, said he had considered a run to succeed veteran Montana Senator Max Baucus. But he ultimately decided against it because Congress spends too much time bickering rather than legislating.
"I'm not goofy enough to be in the House (of Representatives) or senile enough to be in the Senate, where things go to die. I don't think they get anything done back there, and I'm a doer," Schweitzer, 57, said.
Asked about the prospects for a White House campaign, he answered indirectly by referring to three states that have traditionally held the earliest primary elections or caucuses in the presidential race.
"I hold the people of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in high regard," he said. "If I were running for U.S. Senate, I'd be so goldarn busy I wouldn't be able to get out and visit with my friends in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina."
Schweitzer, who has cast himself as a populist, common-sense Democrat, clashed repeatedly with a conservative majority in the statehouse during his eight years as governor.
He wielded a symbolic "veto"-emblazoned branding iron in blocking Republican measures he felt defied "the will of the people of Montana."
He left office last year, prevented by term limits from seeking re-election again, and was widely considered a strong favorite to capture the open Senate seat being vacated by Baucus and traditionally held by Democrats.
Political observers said Schweitzer's decision to duck out of next year's Senate race has tipped the balance in favor of Republicans in the fight to succeed Baucus.
"It's not a runaway, but Republicans now have an edge," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
National Republican operatives cheered the Schweitzer pullout as a crucial moment in their effort to gain control of the Senate, which includes targeting Democratic incumbents in Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina.
"We are in a strong position not only to win in Montana, but closer to the Senate majority in 2014," National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring said in a statement.
National Democratic Party strategists said the political math continues to favors them, noting that Democrats can still hold on to the Montana seat and that incumbent Democrats are positioned to win re-election.
Joel Aberbach, director of the UCLA Center for American Politics and Public Policy, said Schweitzer is a relatively unknown quantity on the national political stage.
But he said a maverick Democrat with populist credentials might provide crossover appeal by boosting Democrats' standing in the more conservative Western states.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Xavier Briand)