Friday, September 01, 2006

Montana U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

September 1, 2006
67 Days Until Election Day

Montana U.S. Senate

Status: Republican Incumbent
2004 Presidential Result: Red State (West)

Outlook: Tossup (R)

Democrats across the country are extremely enthused about the possibility of unseating three term Republican Senator Conrad Burns in Big Sky Country. Considering the variety of political and personality related difficulties that Burns has faced in the past year or so, it is practically amazing that the incumbent is not considered all but out of office at the moment. Instead, he remains vulnerable, but in an extremely competitive race that will say much about just how deep the Republican orientation of Montana really is.

The first warning signs for Burns may have come six years ago, when he won reelection in a race that turned out to be far more competitive than many initially expected it would be, against a candidate who has since gone on to be elected Governor of Montana. Luckily for Burns, Brian Schweitzer is not available for a rematch this year. Many have said that the Burns campaign took the 2000 campaign for granted and were caught by surprise and thus they have been very aggressive about raising money and building an organization well in advance of this race.

Polls from last year showed Burns with a wide lead over potential Democrat opponents. As the calendar turned however, much media attention was given to Burns’ past associations in Washington with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who plead guilty to criminal charges and is cooperating with investigators. Burns has denied any wrong doing related to intervening on behalf of Indian tribes that Abramoff represented, featuring his side of the story in great detail on his campaign website, and the Senator has also forcefully denounced the lobbyist. The political damage was clearly done though as Burns’ standings in both head to head matchups against Democrat challengers and in job performance ratings went on to take a big hit, to the extent that he is according to Survey USA, now the least popular Senator within his home state in America.

As polls showed this race in Republican friendly Montana being far from safe, many in the GOP would have loved for Burns to step aside in favor of a Republican who would have had a much better chance of winning. The incumbent though was unconvinced and decided to stay in the race and went on to easily defeat a credible primary opponent, who served in the state legislative leadership, in what was perhaps a somewhat surprising showing to those who were ready to write Burns’ political obituary.

There is little reason to believe at this time that an indictment of Burns for Abramoff related activities is imminent or even likely. For a variety of reasons, the entire issue of the “culture of corruption” that Democrats seemed ready to hurl at all Republicans this election year, may have fallen from the front of their playbook a little as polling data has shown that voters do not consider the Republicans to be necessarily any more corrupt than Democrats and after the issue failed to win a special House election in California where the previous incumbent was already convicted and serving time in a federal prison. To be sure, the taint of corruption continues to linger around Burns and it has damaged his standing in this race, perhaps fatally, but as Abramoff has faded from the headlines, Burns has possibly turned a noticeable polling deficit against his opponent to a dead heat situation.

The Republican may actually have bigger problems to worry about now though, primarily his own big mouth. As Burns himself jokes, he has the capacity to quickly self-destruct through verbal gaffes. He has always been known as being extremely politically incorrect and prone to mistakes along those lines, for which he has had to make apologies, but the frequency of the puzzling statements in recent weeks has to be very alarming. The most recent incident involves a Burns statement that America was facing an enemy that “drives taxis by day and kills by night.” Some are probably genuinely offended by statements like that and others probably just laugh it off as old Conrad just being himself, but if these sorts of embarrassing statements continue after Labor Day, Burns may very well end his political career.

The person who would stand to benefit the most from that of course would be Burns’ Democrat opponent, State Senate President Jon Tester. An affable appearing, beefy small town farmer with a buzz cut and missing fingers from a meat grinding accident, Tester is the darling of left-wing bloggers around the country who view the mixture of his liberal ideology and personal appeal as key to winning elections in Red State Montana. Tester started off his campaign as a primary underdog facing an opponent who was for more moderate and who already held statewide office, but Tester’s network of devoted activists from around the country kept him very competitive and in a race where Democrats are hoping to play up scandal, the other Democrat turned out to have problems in that area too. Tester won the primary by an extremely impressive and wider than expected margin, demonstrating considerable vote getting ability. However, Democrats may eventually be wondering if their pure as snow nominee, with his very vocal cheering section from the Daily Kos wing of the party, is just too liberal to win federal office in Montana.

The earliest polls in this race, even as Burns’ free fall began to occur, showed Tester running weaker against him than the Democrat who went on to lose the primary fared. After Tester’s impressive primary win though, most polls showed the Democrat moving into a lead by as much as 7 points in one Rasmussen Reports survey. The most recent poll from Rasmussen though has Burns rebounding by gaining those 7 points back and moving once again into a dead heat with Tester. The challenger may be doing everything right and Burns may be doing just about everything wrong, but the race remains a tossup, which is indicative of the challenge for a liberal Democrat (at least by Montana standards) to win a federal office against a veteran incumbent and potentially shift the entire balance of power in the Senate over to the national Democrats.

Voters will have to decide if they are willing to overlook potential ethical abuses and abrasive behavior in order to keep a veteran incumbent from the Senate majority and party of the White House, who has the ability to use his seniority and influence to bring home federal largess to a small population state that often relies on that sort of thing or if they want to vote for a guy who they may enjoy having a beer with, but who could also be seen as out of step with the state on such contentious wedge issues as national security, immigration reform, flag burning, and gay rights. Republicans will go to great lengths to portray Tester as someone who would go to Washington and vote the way that Teddy Kennedy tells him to. Tester will simply have to overcome that impression if he is to win, as Republicans will call in the big guns to campaign against him in Montana, while there are very few nationally prominent Democrat surrogates who would provide a net benefit for the challenger. The party believes the gains they made in 2004 on the state level can be transferred to a Senate race, but this race may turn out to be another example on just how different state and federal elections really are in states that have a strong lean in one direction.

Montanans have soured on Conrad Burns, and he remains without a doubt, one of the most vulnerable incumbents in all of Congress. However, if Tester can be defined as an ideologically unacceptable alternative who cannot match Burns’ influence on Capitol Hill, the incumbent might be able to hang on by the skin of his teeth. Considering everything that has been thrown at him of late by both his own missteps and situations beyond his control, he is still in what is considered to be a dead heat and it is hard to see how worse things can really get for him. To insure that he is not defeated by himself, Burns’ campaign staff might want to consider investing in a muzzle.

Burns campaign link:

2006 Senate races predicted thus far: 9 D, 6R
Post-election Senate balance of power predicted thus far: 36 D, 46R