Michael Punke, the author of the best-selling survivalist novel “The Revenant” and a former U.S. ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Geneva, is considering a Democratic run for Senate or governor in Montana, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Neither race has an announced Democratic candidate yet, though people are circling both campaigns, and Punke hopes to use his long career of experience in public policy and his public profile as a hit author to make himself an interesting and attractive candidate, according to one of the people familiar with his plans.
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He spent seven years as ambassador to the WTO in the Obama administration before moving back home to Missoula, Mont., where he became the lead global public policy official at Amazon Web Services. Punke declined to comment on his political ambitions, but he did write on Medium in March about the importance of the Democratic Party being moderate.
In Punke’s time at the WTO — the often-troubled organization that requires consensus among 163 often-squabbling member countries in order to move forward —the trade group concluded its first tariff reductions since China joined and also finalized a trade agreement that reduced bureaucratic barriers that slowed U.S. exports at international borders, a move which won plaudits from the U.S. industry and agriculture.
Punke, who has talked to leading Montana Democrats about his political ambitions but is not talking to donors at this stage, has described himself to potential backers in Montana as “rabidly centrist” and said that if he runs, he would likely focus on issues like health care and workforce development, said one source. He would also use his WTO trade experience as a selling point because some of Montana’s biggest industries are trade-dependent, like exports of agricultural products and copper and even tourism.
Punke’s biography could also stand out in a campaign. He has never run for office before, though he has government experience from the Obama and Clinton administrations, but Punke’s real claim to fame was writing a book that became a 2015 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. After he sold “The Revenant,” Punke moved to Montana in 2003 and wrote other books on the labor movement in Montana and on the near-extinction of buffalo in the West.
President Donald Trump won Montana with nearly 56 percent of the vote in 2016, carrying the state by more than 20 percentage points. If Punke decides to enter the Senate race, he would face Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who won with 58 percent of the vote in 2014. The current Democratic governor of Montana, Steve Bullock, is term-limited and is expected to announce a run for president soon. Independent Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins and Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney are also seen as potential candidates for governor, though Collins said in March he was also considering the Senate race and appears ready to launch a campaign for that office.
On the Republican side, GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte is also a potential gubernatorial candidate. State Attorney General Tim Fox is already running for the Republican nomination.
Punke was born and raised in Wyoming and went out East to attend George Washington University and then Cornell Law School. He also worked in international economic affairs in the Clinton White House and as a senior policy adviser in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
Early on in his career, Punke also worked in former Democratic Sen. Max Baucus’ office, where he met his wife, with whom he has two college-aged children. He has also previously served as an adjunct professor at the University of Montana.