The 2006 congressional midterm elections are seven-and-a-half months away, but Montana already has a full-blown senatorial race underway. That’s because there’s a lot riding on this year’s races: Democrats need to win only six seats in November to take control of the U.S. Senate, and Montana Sen. Conrad Burns is widely seen as one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the land.
With the American public’s growing dissatisfaction with the leadership of President George W. Bush dragging the GOP down across the board, and the political capital the president claimed to have earned with his reelection all but disappeared, Republicans in Congress are desperate to maintain their majority on Capitol Hill. If they lose it, they can look forward to two long years of a stalled agenda.
In an already narrowly divided U.S. Senate, any Democratic gains could spell disaster for the Republican administration facing two more years of quagmire at home and abroad. It’s been more than a decade since the GOP took control of Congress, and with the president weakened by bad news in Iraq and tone-deaf domestic missteps including the recently aborted sale of port operations to a company owned by the Unite Arab Emirates, Democrats sense an opportunity to turn the tables.
They hope to start in Montana.
Montana won’t choose a Democratic nominee to square off against Burns until the June 6 primary, yet already the state has been bombarded with television and radio ads since August, a full 14 months before the election. Montana was the first state in the country to run Democratic ads targeting an incumbent Republican, and the attacks have focused exclusively on Burns’ alleged ties to convicted felon and former super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Burns asserts he has done nothing wrong in his dealings with Abramoff and his clients, but for more than a year national and state media coverage of the controversy has plagued his campaign and the Democrats have successfully kept the issue in the spotlight. Recent polls indicate that Burns now trails either of his likely Democratic opponents, State Auditor John Morrison and state Senate President Jon Tester, and neither of those candidates has even begun their campaigns in earnest.
While the political back and forth over the Abramoff/Burns-controversy is already old hat here in Montana, midterm campaigns have hardly gotten off the ground in other parts of the country.
So why is Montana shaping up as such an early battleground in the Democrats’ bid to take back the Senate?
For starters, Burns barely slipped past then-senate candidate Brian Schweitzer in his 2000 bid for reelection, and the statewide tide has turned in favor of Montana’s Democrats since then. After losing to Burns, Schweitzer cashed in on his newfound name recognition and an already up-and-running campaign organization to make his successful bid for governor in 2004. In that election, Democrats took over the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1984, gained control of the state Senate from Republicans, and wrestled to a tie in the state House.
Democrats’ recent rise to power in Montana, coupled with the fact that Burns has been substantially weakend by controversy, has Democrats across the country smelling blood in a state usually written off by pundits and political operatives as a Republican lock.
As Election Day draws closer, the challenge for state Democrats will be to capitalize on the momentum they created in 2004 to successfully unseat Burns. With four or five incumbent Republicans nationwide facing stiff challenges, the outcome of Montana’s Senate election could even swing the balance of power in the nation’s capitol. Come November, Montana voters will play an important role in deciding whether President George W. Bush will have the support he needs to forward his conservative agenda, or if he’ll be relegated to the ranks of history’s lame ducks.
The vulnerable senator
In Ohio, Sen. Mike DeWine is plagued by scandals that have embroiled the state Republican Party, led by a governor with a statewide approval rating in the teens. In Pennsylvania, the Democratic challenger, state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., already has a double-digit lead in the polls over incumbent Sen. Rick Santorum (R). Here in Montana, Burns can’t seem to distance himself from the ongoing Abramoff controversy—a taint that has some Republicans so worried about the senator’s chances of reelection that state Sen. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, this week decided to run against him in the Republican primary. And rumors continue to swirl that Burns will drop out of the race before Thursday’s filing deadline (after the Independent’s press time), clearing the way for a Republican less freighted with Abramoff’s baggage to try to hold on to the seat.
The first whiffs of Burns’ troubles appeared in late 2004 when the Washington Post reported his financial connections to “Casino” Jack Abramoff.
Abramoff is at the center of one of the biggest political scandals to rock Capitol Hill since Watergate. He pleaded guilty in January to federal conspiracy, fraud, bribery and tax evasion charges for his role in an influence-peddling scheme that involved the widespread defrauding of American Indian tribes. As part of the plea agreement, Abramoff has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in their investigation.
The Post reported in early 2005 that a $3 million grant from a federal program intended for impoverished tribal schools went to the Saginaw Chippewas of Michigan, one of the richest tribes in the country, under pressure from Burns, who chairs the Interior appropriations subcommittee. The tribe was a client of Abramoff at the time, and Abramoff, his associates and clients reportedly provided 42 percent of the “soft-money” contributions to Burns’ political action committee from 2000 to 2002.
Since then, additional reports have surfaced connecting Burns to Abramoff. The most damaging relate to Burns’ vote on a bill that would have broadened federal labor and immigration rules in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth.
According to The Associated Press, Burns and his staff met Jack Abramoff’s lobbying team on at least eight occasions and collected $12,000 in donations in 2001, around the time that Burns reversed his vote on the bill. Records obtained by The Associated Press showed that Abramoff donated $5,000 to Burns’ political action committee in February, just before the meetings started; Abramoff’s firm, Greenberg Traurig, donated $2,000 to Burns in March; and Eloy Inos of Saipan donated $5,000 in April.
In all, Burns is reported to have taken more than $150,000 in Abramoff-related money, more than any other public official on Capitol Hill—a charge Burns has never denied.
Burns denies that his vote was influenced by Abramoff or related donations, but veteran political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, of The Rothenberg Political Report, says as long as Abramoff is a part of the Senate race, retaining his seat is going to be an uphill battle for Burns.
“We see him as one of the four or five Republican senators whose seats are at considerable risk,” says Rothenberg.
Before the worst of the news started to surface last fall, Burns enjoyed a double-digit lead against his likely Democratic challengers, John Morrison and Jon Tester. He has since seen that lead evaporate, thanks to continued media reports and Democratic attack ads targeting his involvement with Abramoff.
According to a March Rasmussen Reports poll, when pitted against State Auditor John Morrison, Morrison leads Burns 47 percent to 44 percent. The poll indicates that State Senate President John Tester leads Burns 46 to 45 percent. That same poll asked respondents to consider how they would choose in a matchup between the Democratic challengers and two possible replacements for Burns in the midterm election: U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg or former Gov. Mark Racicot.
According to the poll, either Republican leads handily when voters consider those potential matchups. However, Burns has repeatedly denied he plans to withdraw from the race and affirmed his intention to win in November.
Last spring, when stories about Burns’ Abramoff connections began gaining traction, state Republican Party Executive Director Chuck Denowh predicted, “this whole thing is going to roll over relatively quickly.”
“It’s a pretty short-lived story,” Denowh said then.
Since then, Burns’ Abramoff dealings have been continually and widely reported in the national and state media, and according to Roll Call, the U.S. Justice Department is investigating his involvement with Abramoff.
Burns says investigators haven’t contacted him and the DOJ refuses to comment, but a March 13 article in Roll Call reported that the DOJ pulled and examined the financial records of at least nine members of Congress, including Burns. The article also claims that DOJ is examining the records of two of Burns’ former top staffers: Will Brooke, Burns’ chief of staff from 2001 to 2003, and Shawn Vasell, who worked as Burns’ state director after working for Abramoff. Vasell went back to work for Abramoff’s lobbying firm after leaving Burns’ staff.
For his part, Burns claims he doesn’t know Abramoff and never met him. But in this month’s issue of Vanity Fair, Abramoff said Burns is being disingenuous, telling contributing editor David Margolick that “Every appropriation we wanted [from Burns’s committee] we got,” and “our staffs were as close as they could be. They practically used Signatures [Abramoff’s Washington, D.C. restaurant] as their cafeteria.”
Abramoff added that it’s “hard for him to run from that record.”
Plan of attack
“The most dangerous scandals are the ones that confirm the suspicions the public already had,” says Helena author David Sirota, a longtime Democratic campaign strategist and co-chair of the Progressive Legislative Action Network. “People already suspected that Conrad Burns is a little bit of a shady character…now what we’re seeing is a full-blown scandal that simply confirms those suspicions.”
Brian Nick, a spokesman for the Republican National Senatorial Committee (RNSC) dismisses such talk.
“Here’s the bottom line on what’s going on in Montana: when you have an absence of an agenda, when you’re not going to beat Sen. Burns on the issues, the only thing to run on is negative attacks and character assassination,” says Nick. “If [Democrats] tried to take him on discussing issues and his voting record they don’t stand a chance. That’s when the negative attacks come in.”
But Jim Farrell, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, says Democrats have a duty to inform the public about Burns’ misdeeds.
“When elected public officials are taking bribes from corrupt lobbyists…the people have a right to know about it,” Farrell says. “It’s a betrayal of trust for the people of Montana for Conrad Burns to have sold his vote and other official actions.”
Predictably, the Burns camp is more upbeat.
“He has made Montana a better place to live, work and raise a family. He is proud of his record and he intends to talk about the issues that affect Montanans,” says Burns campaign spokesperson Jason Klindt, even while acknowledging a tough road ahead. “We expect this to be a close race all the way through Election Day. At the end of the day, though, this race will be about Montanans choosing the senator that best represents them, and that is Conrad Burns.”
Still, Washington Post political blogger and election handicapper Chris Cillizza places Burns at No. 3 on the list of most vulnerable Republican senators behind Santorum and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. So it’s no surprise the Democratic Party is taking shots at Burns early and often.
Farrell openly and even a bit proudly admits that the Montana Democratic Party was the first in the country to run political ads against a Republican Senate opponent in this election cycle. Democrats did so with the help of more than $230,000 in funding from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).
“We were the first to make an issue of Jack Abramoff,” says Farrell. “We’ve never done anything like it before, particularly in Montana, and we were right to do it because it has played a major role in the course of this election.”
Rothenberg says the Democrats’ ads have helped level what was once a decidedly unlevel playing field in Montana.
“[Burns’] poll numbers were pretty good until they ran those ads,” says Rothenberg. “So they wanted to invest early in softening him up, and I’m sure they figured if they could soften him up they could raise some more money off of the perception that he was in trouble.”
Political analyst Jennifer Duffy, editor of The Cook Political Report, says Democrats have the added benefit of running a campaign in an inexpensive state.
“If you had the same set of circumstances in California you wouldn’t see Democrats on the move this early,” Duffy says.
According to Duffy, a one-week TV ad run in California would cost upward of $2 million. That’s about 15 times what it costs to buy a similar ad run in Montana.
Republicans accuse national Democratic Party leaders of using the cheap television market to run a baseless smear campaign against Burns.
“Montana is a state that has been identified by the national [Democratic] political operatives in Washington, D.C. as an inexpensive place to go in and hit Sen. Burns with negative attacks and political ads to tear his character apart in hopes to confuse and muddy the waters in Montana,” says NRSC spokesman Nick.
Nick points to what he calls “national party operatives” at work in the state trying to influence Montana politics.
In fact Farrell was hired as executive director of the Montana Democratic Party in September. Previously he was a top aide to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Democrat from Minnesota popular with liberals and progressives.
Duffy says there’s nothing unique about a political party bringing in outside help, both in terms of experienced personnel and finances, when it comes to targeting hotly contested Congressional elections. Republicans and Democrats both have long histories of sending financial resources to races they think are up for grabs. For instance, Burns’ spokesman Klindt was formerly the spokesman for U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Missouri.
And Burns and the Republicans don’t intend to sit back while the Democrats bombard his campaign with attack ads. Burns launched a 60-second counterattack on TV and radio last January in which he said Democratic ads linking him to Abramoff are “just a big bunch of you know what.” Burns used the spot to remind Montanans how he has “delivered” for the state and it ends with the senator looking directly into the camera and proclaiming, “I don’t know who Abramoff influenced, but he never influenced me.” Democrats immediately responded with a third ad, utilizing portions of Burns own ad and ending with an unsubtle Abramoff jab: “Burns is delivering all right. But not for Montana.”
Montanans already have four rounds of political ads under their belts and it’s not even April.
“Both sides will have plenty of money and they’ll have more messages, more ads, and more examples of voter contact that they could ever need,” says Rothberg.
Analysts agree that the Abramoff scandal alone is not enough to bring down Burns. In his 18 years in office, Montana’s junior senator has amassed considerable clout. As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee who sits on six appropriations subcommittees, Burns is in a prime position to direct millions of federal dollars back to the state. If Tester or Morrison were to unseat Burns in November, Montana would lose a fat spot at the federal trough.
That’s of primary concern to some Montanans, including Walter Muralt, president of Muralt’s Travel Plaza west of Missoula. Burns made a brief stop at Muralt’s Travel Plaza on Monday on his way to the Flathead Valley, after which Muralt told the Independent that it’s vitally important for Montana to have two powerful senators in office, be they Democrat or Republican.
“Even though we only have three people in the legislature, because of Max’s and Conrad’s long tenure, we’re a pretty powerful state, especially with the committee seats that they have,” says Muralt. “If the game is ‘I gotta get money for my state and get myself on those committees that are going to get my state some money’…well, it’s only pork barrel spending if it’s not your state getting the money.”
Klindt says Burns has a shining record in that regard, and that will ultimately carry him to victory in the polls.
“No one has done more for Montana than Conrad Burns,” Klindt says. “He is the only person in this race with a record of accomplishment and vision for the future.”
Duffy says Burns will have to continually remind Montanans what he’s done for them lately.
“He’s going to be able to point to roads, bridges, buildings and programs and talk about the fact that Montana wouldn’t have these things if he weren’t on the Appropriations Committee. That’s important to voters,” says Duffy.
Duffy and Rothenberg agree that Democrats can’t count on the successes of 2004 to carry them through to a Senate victory in November. Rothenberg suggests the success Democrats enjoyed in the last election had more to do with voter disdain for the state’s previous Republican administration than with new ideas and new issues brought to the table by Democrats.
“The reason the Democrats had a good year was that the governor [Martz] was a disaster, and so that infected other Republicans, much like the danger the Republicans face now with Bush’s numbers infecting other Republicans,” says Rothenberg.
According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released earlier this month, Americans’ growing dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq has driven Bush’s approval rating to a new low of 36 percent. That same poll indicated that weakened support for Republican handling of the war on terrorism has given Democrats a 16 percentage point lead over Republicans when registered voters are asked which party they will support in November.
That could help Democrats in Montana, but Rothenberg and Duffy agree that the previous Montana Republican regime’s negatives aren’t likely to carry over into the 2006 Senate race.
Democrats could very well have another good year, but for different reasons.
“The stars were a little bit aligned for Democrats in 2004. Schweitzer was helped by the fact that he ran for Senate in 2000 and never really stopped running, and Judy Martz was a disaster,” says Duffy. “This race isn’t about 2004.”
Duffy says it’s true that the Democrats are on a winning streak in Montana, but like any winning streak, it’s bound to end.
“[T]his race is all about Burns. It’s a referendum on Burns, like it is for most incumbents,” says Duffy.
Daniel Kemmis, senior fellow in public policy at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, says in order for Democrats to have continued electoral success in 2006, they’ll have to show voters that they made the right choice at the polls in 2004.
“If Democrats are going to make long-term gains, not just overnight gains…then the real test is not the superficial flash that you might have with any given candidate or election,” says Kemmis. “The real test is whether you are putting in place governing policies that lead the state and the region in the right direction.”
Gov. Brian Schweitzer agrees that Democrats were able to capitalize on failed Republican policies at the polls in 2004, but he refuses to discount the momentum of the party.
“Republicans had control of the state for 20 years and we were last place in wages and we were one of the slowest moving economies in the county…” says Schweitzer. “We were a state that for a myriad of reasons just didn’t believe in ourselves anymore.”
He adds that Democrats have done right by the voters since taking office, and he expects that to play out at the poll come November.
“In politics it’s more important to be lucky than to be good, and so Montanans said, ‘we’ll give old Brian a try here,’” says Schweitzer. “I think then what we’ve done is we delivered.”
For the first time anyone can remember, Montana will host an election of national import, and that has both sides gearing up for a bloody run to November.
“The stakes are high for Montana and for the country in this U.S. Senate race,” says the Dems’ Farrell. “There are many scenarios this year under which the outcome of the race in Montana will determine [which party] controls the U.S. Senate next year. That’s big stuff for the country and certainly for Montana.”
And so this time around it’s not just Burns versus Democratic candidate “X” or “Y”, it’s Burns versus the Democratic Party. While the DSCC has already spent close to a quarter of a million dollars in the state, the Republicans don’t even have an opponent to target. The early money has allowed the Democrats to soften Burns without drawing from Morrison’s or Tester’s campaign coffers. But at last count Burns already has $3,347,221 in cash in the bank, more than quadruple Morrison’s $752,847, and 20 times Tester’s $166,852. And according to Nick, the NRSC will “be ready to provide resources to help Conrad Burns keep his seat.”
When the Senate is at all close in terms of the partisan balance of Congress, attention will focus wherever there is a chance to swing a seat from one party to another. And that chance clearly exists in Montana now, says Kemmis.
“Because of that there’s going to be more national attention on this race than we’ve seen in Montana for a long time,” he says.
But Kemmis says the impacts of Montana’s Senate race go beyond Big Sky Country and the Capitol Hill. There’s a larger political realignment underway in the Rocky Mountains, and this race could have a decided impact on how blue the Rockies could get.
By 2000 the eight Rocky Mountain states had become a virtual one-party region, with no Democratic governors, only three Democrats in the Senate and only three legislative houses controlled by Democrats. Six years later, New Mexico, Wyoming, Arizona and Montana have Democrats in the governors’ mansions, and substantial victories in Montana and Colorado in 2004 gave Democrats control of both of those states’ legislatures.
With only a handful of delegates and electoral votes, Montana is negligible in the presidential picture, but if Western states send more Democrats to the Senate, they will wield a more powerful regional voice. A repeat victory for the Democrats in 2006 could have resounding impacts for the party and the region.
As November draws near, the rest of the country will keep a watchful eye on which party this once-red state sends to the Senate in 2006. It will be up to the Democrats to not only take advantage of Republican weaknesses, but also to prove that they can step into the void and offer something new.
“There’s a strong case to be made that if Democrats are going to start building a national majority, then they have to start connecting in a consistent way with voters in states in the Rocky Mountain region,” says Sirota. “This race will be in part a test case on whether Democrats are mastering that ability.”