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Can Tester top Morrison to face Burns?

As the clock ticks down toward the June 6 primary election, the hottest race in Montana—pitting State Senate President Jon Tester against State Auditor John Morrison—is getting hotter, weirder, and almost unbearably tense as Democrats carefully weigh the options before throwing their support behind a candidate to run against incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns this fall.

A year ago there seemed little question of the outcome. Having run two successful statewide campaigns for State Auditor, John Morrison had the name recognition, the funding, and the political connections both in and out of Montana to take on Burns—or more appropriately, to take on the multi-million-dollar campaign war chest Burns has amassed from those seeking his favor. As chair of both the Subcommittee on the Interior of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and the Communications Subcommit-tee of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, Burns has used the power of his incumbency to rake in the dough.

But then, as is happening ever more frequently in this little tale, something unexpected happened: Senate President Jon Tester, the organic farmer from Big Sandy, threw his hat in the ring. Almost the antithesis of Morrison, Tester wasn’t wealthy, hadn’t won any statewide elections, and didn’t have a pool of personal wealth upon which to draw.

In modern politics, the rule of thumb is that those with the most money are automatically given the best chance of winning—regardless of the party, the position or the person. With Morrison already far ahead in fundraising, Tester’s entrance to the race was seen by many political insiders as interesting, but ultimately futile.

About then Conrad Burns started having some serious trouble of his own when D.C. superlobbyist Jack Abramoff was indicted for a host of actions that primarily concerned Abramoff, his associates or his clients spending large sums of money to influence members of Congress—and right up there at the top of Abramoff’s money list was none other than Montana’s own Conrad Burns, who had hauled in more of Abramoff’s tainted largesse than anyone.

Gleefully shouting “Republican Culture of Corruption,” the Democrats could hardly contain themselves as the gory details of the Abramoff affair hit the news. With approval ratings for Congress bottoming out and President Bush’s only slightly higher, it seemed clear that Burns was in big trouble and Montana Democrats had a significantly improved opportunity to beat the beleaguered incumbent by playing the corruption card.

But as Morrison and Tester tarred Burns with his Abramoff connections, the rumors of skeletons in John Morrison’s closet began rattling. Eventually, a number of articles revealed Morrison, who is married with two children, had an affair with a woman who became the wife of a Flathead-area man Morrison’s office was investigating for securities fraud (see “Why the Morrison Affair Matters,” April 20, 2006).

While Morrison professed reconciliation with his wife and said the affair hadn’t influenced his investigation, there was little doubt that the news had damaged his campaign. Contributions slowed as questions persisted. And hanging over it all was the pressing question: If Morrison was tainted, would that neutralize the single most powerful issue—corruption—that the Dems hoped to use against Burns?

Suddenly, Tester’s dark-horse campaign came galloping into the light. Jon Tester, his supporters said, was the only candidate with nothing to hide, and hence was the only one who could take on and beat Burns. For his part, and without going directly after Morrison’s indiscretions, Tester said the same thing.

This week’s polls show Tester has come from behind and is now running neck and neck with Morrison—and, for the first time, surpassing him in fundraising. If momentum means anything, it would appear the momentum going into the election is strongly with Tester.

Bolstering the corruption-electability issue is the continuing bad news coming down on Burns’ side of the equation. The same polls that reveal Tester’s ascendancy find Burns approval ratings “nose-diving” and predict that either Democrat would likely beat him. Yet another article details an evolving scandal in which Burns, his former chief-of-staff turned D.C. lobbyist Leo Giacometto, and a UM spin-off company called Compressus, Inc. are involved with a $270,000 no-bid contract to the company—and nearly as much to Giacometto’s lobbying firm—while Burns’ daughter sits on the company’s board.

Morrison, however, didn’t have a great week either. On Friday, the Great Falls Tribune reported: “Four Democratic attorneys have signed a letter sent to lawyers around Montana asking them to vote for and contribute to Jon Tester over his chief rival state Auditor John Morrison.”

In the words of Butte attorney Michael J. McKeon: “The affair, and the poor way [Morrison] handled the Tacke matter, I think render him impotent in the general election against Conrad Burns.” Fellow attorney Alexander Blewett of Great Falls, who donated $4,200 to Morrison’s campaign last year, added: “You’re going to have to read between the lines, but I’m supporting Tester for a vast number of reasons.” Bozeman attorney and State Senator Mike Wheat said he feared a Morrison win would guarantee a “brutal” general election with voters saying: “I don’t care if John Morrison cheats on his wife, but when he does it with the girlfriend and future wife of a guy who’s ripping people and investors off…then that’s just wrong.”

Topping it off—and reported in the same Tribune article—is Morrison’s cancellation of a scheduled hour-long interview on Yellowstone Public Radio in Billings last week, which has left some postulating that his campaign is “imploding.”

Are there more shoes to drop? Hard to say. But if another skeleton tumbles from Morrison’s closet—or candidate Paul Richards pulls out of the race and tosses his support to Tester—next week’s election could well see Big Jon, the squeaky-clean, flat-topped organic farmer from Big Sandy, celebrating a totally unexpected victory.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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