Montana's Sen. Burns Faces Tough Test This Fall

Linked to the Jack Abramoff scandal and tied down by President Bush's low poll numbers, Montana's Sen. Conrad Burns faces a tough re-election. NPR's David Welna traveled to Montana to see Burns and his Democratic foes in action.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

There is a high profile primary going on tomorrow in Montana. At stake is the seat of one of the Senate's most vulnerable incumbents, third term Republican Conrad Burns. Convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his clients and associates gave more money to Burns than to any other member of Congress.

NPR's David Welna reports.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

DAVID WELNA reporting:

It's standing room only at the Billings, Montana Rod and Gun Club. Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the National Rifle Association, is telling the crowd what a good senator Conrad Burns has been for the NRA.

Mr. WAYNE LAPIERRE (CEO, National Rifle Association): That's why, on behalf of the National Rifle Association, I'm proud to be here today to endorse Senator Burns for reelection.

Unidentified Man: Good for you.

(Soundbite of applause)

WELNA: Burns rises to thank LaPierre, and he makes a show of his loyalty to the nation's most powerful gun lobbyists.

Senator CONRAD BURNS (Republican, Montana): And there's one that is the coin of the realm in Washington, D.C.: it's your word. And when these folks say, Conrad, we got this battle. And whenever I say, I'm with you, they don't have to make the call the second time.

WELNA: In ads airing since last year, Montana Democrats say Burns has been too loyal to benefactors, changing his vote to favor an Abramoff client, and as chairman of an appropriations subcommittee, inserting an earmark in a spending bill for another Abramoff client, the Saginaw Chippewa tribe of Michigan.

In his first ad, Burns came out swinging against those charges, shortly after Abramoff pleaded guilty to bribery in January.

Sen. BURNS: Those attack ads, they're just a big bunch of you know what. Plus, they're paid for by the same Democrats who took money from Jack Abramoff's clients. He's the guy that ripped off his Indian clients for millions and lied to anybody and everybody. I don't know who Abramoff influenced, but he never influenced me.

WELNA: Burns' campaign spokesman turned down requests to interview the senator, while insisting Burns has heard nothing from the Justice Department, which is probing his former chief of staff.

Reporter Chuck Johnson has been covering the Burns race for Montana's Lee newspapers. He says lately, the senator's all but ignored allegations of ties to Abramoff - even as his approval ratings plunged to 38 percent.

Mr. CHUCK JOHNSON (Reporter): He doesn't talk much about Abramoff at all unless a reporter questions him. His whole message is I brought $2 billion home to Montana in the 17-plus years I've been in the Senate, and that's the message he wants to talk about. Delivering for Montana is his campaign slogan.

WELNA: And for Burns, that's bringing home the bacon. For Bob Keenan, it's out-of-control pork-barrel spending. Keenan's the Montana senate minority leader who's challenging Burns in the Republican primary.

Senator BOB KEENAN (Republican, Montana; Montana State Senate Minority Leader): It's shameless what they've done, running up the national debt so that it's over $30,000 for every man, woman and child. The interest is over 11 - about $1,100 per person a year. And bragging about the fact they've never raised taxes.

WELNA: Keenan says he'll let others take shots at the $150,000 Burns took from Abramoff and associates, money the senator's since given away. What prompted Keenan to incur the wrath of the Republican establishment by challenging Burns was doubts about the senator's electability.

Sen. KEENAN: There wasn't anybody that was willing to recognize the elephant in the living room and talk about it.

WELNA: Still it's not clear how many will cast votes against Burns in the Republican primary. Montanans are far more focused on what appears to be a dead heat race between Burns' top two democratic challengers. Here's one of them, State Auditor John Morrison, as he trolls for votes at the Helena Senior Center's daily dinner.

State Auditor JOHN MORRISON (Democrat, Montana): Hi, Joy. Good to see you.

Unidentified Woman #1: Good to see you.

State Auditor MORRISON: Don't want to interrupt your lunch, but I wanted to stop... Unidentified Woman #1: You look younger than you do on TV.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

State Auditor MORRISON: Yeah? That's what they tell me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #2: And handsomer.

WELNA: Later, as local musicians take over the entertaining, 65-year-old diner Fred Sergeant(ph) says he thinks Morrison's probably the only one who stands a chance of beating Conrad Burns.

Mr. FRED SERGEANT (Resident, Helena Senior Center): And we need to get Burns out and get the corruption and stuff out of there. We've had enough. You know, get back to the way it should be.

WELNA: But other Democrats thinks Morrison's toast. That's because Morrison admitted after a newspaper expose that he'd had an extramarital affair with a woman who later married a man the state auditor's office investigated for fraud. Many Montanans suspect Morrison made sure his office did not come down too hard on the husband of his one-time lover.

But for Fred Sergeant, Morrison's affair is not a problem.

Mr. SERGEANT: As long as conducts himself right, I mean, from here on out -everybody has a, you know, roving eye once in a while. Even me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SERGEANT: So that don't bother me, no.

WELNA: Later in an interview, Morrison says Montanans have no reason to question his integrity.

State Auditor MORRISON: It's no fun to have the stumblings in your marriage on the front page of the paper. But my wife, Kathy, sat with me and together we explained to these reporters that, in a difficult situation, as state auditor, I had done the right thing for the people of Montana. And that's a sharp contrast with Conrad Burns who, in a very easy situation, did the wrong thing and traded votes for money.

WELNA: Until news of his affair broke, Morrison was the strong favorite to win tomorrow's Democratic senate primary. But a statewide poll last month showed him neck and neck with the other democratic challenger, Montana Senate President, an organic grain farmer, Jon Tester. Tester's latest ad touts the ground he's gained in recent weeks.

(Soundbite of Jon Tester TV ad)

Unidentified Man: All over Montana, people are joining Jon Tester's campaign for U.S. Senate. That's because Jon Tester will end Conrad Burns' kind of corruption and make the U.S. Senate look a little more like Montana.

WELNA: Big, burly and flat-topped with a buzz cut, Tester looks more drill sergeant than politico. At his Helena campaign headquarters, Tester says he has no ethical skeletons in his closet.

Mr. TESTER: I think that from an electability standpoint, I can beat Conrad Burns in November on the ethics issue alone. I don't think John can -Morrison can do it.

WELNA: And why not?

Mr. TESTER: Well, because he's got his own baggage.

WELNA: Montana State University political scientist Craig Wilson says that baggage could get extremely heavy for Morrison should he win tomorrow's primary. Which is why, he says, Burns prefers running against Morrison, and has said little so far about his affair.

Professor CRAIG WILSON (Political Science, Montana State University): And I think that they're saving it, in case Morrison does get the nod. And then we're going to hear a lot more about it as they talk about issues. And I think that they're probably going to be throwing some mud at each other. It may meet in mid-air and splat to the ground.

WELNA: Giving Burns the advantage as the incumbent, Wilson says. That is, in part, why Susan Butler of Helena - who calls Burns a buffoo - says she favors Jon Tester after learning of Morrison's philandering.

Ms. SUSAN BUTLER: I do think it puts him in a compromising position. I was disappointed. And I think, with the state that the country is in, we need to do better in electing our officials. We need to look for people of integrity.

WELNA: Indeed, tomorrow's Senate primary in Montana may well be seen as a referendum on who has the best moral footing to challenge an endangered senator's bid to keep his job.

David Welna, NPR News.

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