Montana Senate: Is Conrad Burns Headed for Defeat This Fall?

by Stuart Rothenberg June 26, 2006 · 12:01 AM EDT

Once burned, twice shy: That’s simply another way of saying that I’m more cautious about handicapping the Montana Senate race than I am other Senate contests.

Just days before the 2000 elections, my newsletter moved GOP Sen. Conrad Burns from “Toss-up” to “Lean Takeover.” That rating change was based on information I had gathered about late polling data showing Burns well under 50 percent in his bid for a third term and Democratic challenger Brian Schweitzer pulling even with Burns.

From that evidence, I concluded that the Senator was likely to lose to Schweitzer, a likable, energetic Democrat who had run an effective campaign that took advantage of the Republican’s gaffes and used the issue of prescription drugs effectively.

Burns won that race with 50.6 percent of the vote (to Schweitzer’s 47.2 percent) at the same time that four GOP Senators — Bill Roth (Del.), Rod Grams (Minn.), Slade Gorton (Wash.) and Spencer Abraham (Mich.) — were defeated.

I haven’t forgotten Burns’ victory that cycle. It taught me something about the Senator’s appeal and the state’s political bent, and I have kept it in mind ever since when I have been asked about Burns’ standing back home.

Burns is clearly in trouble once again, and even Republican operatives worry that he may not be able to swim against the strong Democratic tide this November. The Senator’s easy 1994 victory is misleading given the GOP wave that year. His 1988 and 2000 victories were narrow, and polling this cycle strongly suggests that he is now fighting for his political life.

Part of Burns’ problem is his opponent, state Sen. Jon Tester (D), 49, who took over the family farm and converted it to organic farming in 1987.

Tester is a large, burly man with a flattop haircut and a big, engaging personality. In other words, he has the same down-to-earth quality as Burns, and the same knowledge of and background in agriculture.

Tester demolished state Auditor John Morrison, a more polished attorney who once worked on Capitol Hill, in the June Democratic Senate primary, even though Morrison had more money and was regarded by insiders as the favorite. Tester’s fundraising was mediocre, but he made a media splash with an August 2005 fundraiser with the ’90s rock band Pearl Jam.

If Tester has momentum from his primary win, he also has a problem. The Democrat is far more liberal than Burns. Unlike the incumbent, Tester supports abortion rights, would have opposed the Supreme Court nomination of now-Justice Samuel Alito and generally agrees with Democratic Rep. John Murtha’s (Pa.) Iraq withdrawal proposal.

Stylistically, Tester is a good fit for the state. The question is whether Montana voters will see the election as a referendum on Burns and President Bush, or whether Burns can make the election a test of the Democrat’s record and agenda.

Polling shows that Burns is already in a hole. An April poll by Ayres, McHenry & Associates for Burns’ unsuccessful primary opponent had the Senator trailing Tester 49 percent to 42 percent, and a May Mason-Dixon survey for Lee Newspapers also had Burns down, 45 percent to 42 percent.

The Senator’s name identification ratings in both polls also must trouble Republican strategists. The Ayres survey found Burns’ name ID at 41 percent favorable and 48 percent unfavorable, while Mason-Dixon had the Senator’s ID at 35 percent favorable and 41 percent unfavorable.

Democrats already have run TV ads against Burns, portraying him as ethically challenged. Burns has fired back with his own spots, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee recently ran humorous ads portraying Tester as a liberal with a conservative-looking haircut. The Montana Democratic Party is answering those GOP ads with TV and radio spots paid for by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Still, ethics is an obvious problem for the Senator no matter how hard Republicans huff and puff that Democratic attacks are unfair. After all, the April issue of Vanity Fair quoted disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff as saying that his staff members were “as close as they could be” with Burns’ Senate subcommittee staff and that the lobbyist got “everything we wanted” from the subcommittee. Those quotes surely will appear in a Democratic TV spot later in the campaign.

While Montana is often viewed as a conservative Rocky Mountain state in the vein of its neighbors Idaho and Wyoming, the state actually has a history of being more politically competitive.

Democrats won 13 straight Senate elections from 1948 to 1984, and Burns remains the only Montana Republican elected to the Senate since the end of World War II.

Currently the governor, Schweitzer, is a Democrat, and Democrats hold a 27-23 majority in the state Senate. The state House is evenly split between the two major parties. Four of the state’s six statewide officeholders are Democrats, and one of the Republicans, Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, was selected by Schweitzer as his running mate.

In presidential races, the state clearly favors the GOP. Only three Democratic nominees have carried the state since the end of World War II: Harry Truman in 1948, Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Bill Clinton in 1992. And Clinton won a plurality of only 37.6 percent; he carried the state when Independent Ross Perot siphoned off more than 107,000 votes.

Clearly, Burns needs to turn the Senate race into an ideological contest, as most presidential contests have become. But Tester won’t make that easy, and the national environment will be a problem for Burns even in Montana.

Burns probably is the second-most vulnerable Republican Senator up this year, after Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and he will need to pull another upset to keep his seat in the Republican column. He’s done it before, but he may not be able to do it again.