Getting Burned 

Could the W.R. Grace scandal cost Burns the election?

Senator Conrad Burns is beatable, according to the latest survey. A poll commissioned by the Brian Schweitzer campaign shows Burns with the lowest approval rating of any statewide-elected official in Montana, and with support numbers that would make any incumbent wince.

In fact, the polling numbers show Burns as one of the most vulnerable incumbent senators in America. Nearly half the voters in Montana think Burns is doing a poor job representing the state; less than half say they would vote for him if the election were held today. In order to have a strong chance at reelection, an incumbent senator ought to have approval and voter support ratings in the high 50s at this point in the race. Burns has had 11 years to make friends in the state and bring home pork, and his opponent is a relative unknown. His support should be peaking now; instead, he appears to be at risk already.

Why are Burns’ numbers sagging? The current flap over asbestos poisoning in Libby seems to be playing a significant role. Burns’ poll numbers have dropped significantly since the asbestos story broke and the public learned that Burns is championing a bill that would reduce W.R. Grace and other corporations’ financial liability for asbestos-related illness.

The Grace-protection bill is significant because it calls into question Burns’ history of representation. Burns has never hidden his close ties to industry boardrooms. For example, in the early 1990s Burns introduced legislation designed to open Montana’s public roadless areas to logging, oil and gas development, and off-road vehicle recreation. Burns made no bones about the fact that the bill had been written by extractive industry for extractive industry. For years, Burns has argued that what is good for the bottom line of Champion, or Noranda, or W.R. Grace is good for Montanans. And until now, a good number of Montanans seem to have found Burns’ position either compelling or harmless.

But that argument won’t wash with the Grace bill. In fact, it may have provoked Montanans into reconsidering who Burns represents in D.C. For example, Burns is still telling Montanans that logging, mining and roading our last, best places will be good for industry and good for us. But Montanans aren’t buying it; polls show a majority of Westerners support protection of public wildlands. And in the Schweitzer-commissioned poll, 38 percent of Montanans thought the phrase “too close to special interests” described Burns accurately.The Libby situation appears to force voters to ask whether Burns is working to help them, or out-of-state corporations.

So is Burns in trouble? Not necessarily. The money that Burns is pulling in from his corporate friends may more than compensate for any political liabilities those friends bring. Burns has more than a million dollars in the bank (much of it from PACs and industries with little business in Montana, but much in D.C.), and he is spending early and often to trumpet bush-league legislative accomplishments and to pre-empt issues (like Social Security) that a democratic candidate ought to own.

In the second half of 1999 alone, according to reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission, Burns spent half a million dollars to get himself back to D.C. Since his second election, Burns has spent $1.5 million to get himself elected a third time. He will probably spend two to three times that again between now and November.

Between his favors for industry, his broken pledge to run for only two terms, and his record of exacerbating environmental conflicts instead of solving them, Burns faces a crisis in voter confidence. But voters’ memories are notoriously short, and money washes away a multitude of sins. It will take much more than a few bad early polls to derail the Burns campaign.

John Adams is development director for the Montana Wilderness Association. Opinions expressed in “Independent Voices” do not necessarily reflect those of the Independent or the MWA.

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