Ethics Questions, Quips Dog Montana's Sen. Burns Incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns is trying to keep his seat in a race against Democratic challenger Jon Tester. The senator's approval rating has sunk in the wake of ethical questions and some controversial public remarks.
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Ethics Questions, Quips Dog Montana's Sen. Burns

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Ethics Questions, Quips Dog Montana's Sen. Burns

Ethics Questions, Quips Dog Montana's Sen. Burns

Ethics Questions, Quips Dog Montana's Sen. Burns

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Conrad Burns Fact File

Sen. Conrad Burns defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. John Melcher in 1988 to win his Senate seat. He is only the second Republican senator to represent Montana since 1913. Win McNamee/Getty Images hide caption

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Win McNamee/Getty Images

• Serves on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and is chair of the subcommittee on the Interior.

• Born in Missouri, served in the U.S. Marines in Japan and Korea.

• Moved to Montana in 1968 to take a job as a cattle auctioneer. Founded an agricultural news network, which he sold to run for elected office.

• Voted to the Yellowstone County Commission in 1986 — his first elected post — and was recruited by the GOP to run against Democratic incumbent Gov. John Melcher in 1988.

• Named by Time magazine in April 2006 as one of "America's Worst Senators" for being "serially offensive" and his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

• Has an "A" rating from the National Rifle Assn., and 100-percent record with the National Right to Life Committee and the Christian Coalition — meaning Burns' votes in the Senate agree with the policy positions of each interest group.

Source: Associated Press, Time magazine,, Project Vote Smart

Jon Tester Fact File

Democratic Senate candidate Jon Tester at his farm in Big Sandy, Mont. Win McNamee/Getty Images hide caption

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Win McNamee/Getty Images

• Third-generation farmer who grows organic grain. Has a Bachelor's degree in music from the University of Great Falls, and was a music teacher for a short time before returning to work on his family's farm.

• Spoke out against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and has advocated a quicker turnover of authority from the U.S. military to the new Iraqi government.

• A vocal opponent of the USA Patriot Act. "I don't want to weaken it — I want to repeal it," he says.

• Opposed to Social Security privatization.

• Supports greater federal spending on renewable energy, stem-cell research and public education.

• Has called for raising the minimum wage and publicly funded health care for all seniors and children.

Source:, League of Women Voters

A Senate race is a little like an egg: What seems solid from afar gets a little gunky when you get inside.

From the outside, it would seem that the only issue facing voters in Montana's Senate race is the penchant of incumbent Republican Conrad Burns for interesting observations about the ethnicity of his fellow man.

In 1999, he called people of Arabic descent "rag heads," and more recently said that the threat in America comes from those who "drive taxis by day and kill by night."

He once told a newspaper editorial board a story about a rancher who used asked him, "Conrad how can you live back there [in Washington, D.C.] with all those n*****s?'' Burns said he told the rancher it was ''a hell of a challenge.''

And if it's not the gaffes, it's the graft — or at least, the appearance of impropriety. Burns took more money than any other senator from Jack Abramoff and Abramoff's clients. The convicted former lobbyist, quoted in Vanity Fair magazine about the Abramoff-owned restaurant Signatures, says Burns and his staff openly enjoyed the largesse:

"Every appropriation we wanted [from Burns' Senate committees], we got. Our staffs were as close as they could be. They practically used Signatures as their cafeteria. I mean, it's a little difficult for him to run from that record."

Quotes like that lead national columnists like Bob Herbert to call Burns a "clown" — and why Time magazine recently named him one of the Senate's worst lawmakers.

But Montana voters also know that Burns has delivered the goods, in the form of federal cash. There's hardly a town — or in some cases, a traffic intersection — that hasn't benefited from the federal money that Burns has brought to the state.

And it's not that Montanans are consciously holding their noses and making a deal with the devil. Many of his constituents like Burns. He may appear to be a clown to some, but to others he is an Everyman.

No other member of the Senate has Burns' unique resume, and it's one that appeals to many in the largely rural state dotted with ranches and farms. He's been a cattle appraiser and auctioneer, an agricultural reporter, a football referee and a rancher. Unlike every other senator currently in office, Burns has never graduated from college.

Judging by past election results, most folks in Montana like Burns, an 18-year veteran of the Senate, just the way he is. They like his mannerisms and his charm — things opponents often call antics and misstatements.

Jim Gransberry, the dean of Montana political reporters, says the state's electorate is split on just what to make of Sen. Burns.

"There's a certain segment of the population which [says], 'This is Conrad, this is always the way he's been,'" Gransberry says. "There's a certain segment of the population that's appalled at his projecting an image of a hayseed."

One incident that could really hurt his chances with Montana voters this November came during last summer's wildfire season, when Burns lashed out at firefighters for what he thought was a poor performance battling the many blazes that struck the state.

That moment was likely the first time the target of his off-the-cuff comments were aimed at a popular group, instead of an ethnic minority. Montanans are 95 percent white, according to the last census.

Burns' Democratic rival, state Senate President Jon Tester, is trying to garner more than the "anyone but Conrad" vote. Tester, a big, beefy man, is seen by some voters as an authentic Montanan with an all-American pedigree. If he couldn't play offensive line on his high school football team, for example, it was only because he was too busy helping out on the family farm.

Tester has run what many observers say is a very negative campaign — due to the fact, Tester would say, that Burns has so many negatives. Television advertising is cheap in Montana, and the airwaves sport a litany of 30-second attack ads.

But while conventional wisdom says that free-flowing invective suppresses voter turnout, there's every indication that Montanans will come to the polls — and the most recent reports show Tester leading by a small margin.

Burns' own party doesn't appear to be coming to his rescue. The GOP is reportedly spending its ad money in a small number of states it considers key to maintaining power in the Senate.

And some can rightly wonder if there is any voter among the approximately 940,000 residents of Montana who still need another mailer or another commercial to help them decide if they want to send Burns back to the Senate for another six years.