Montana Senate: Fast and Furious Mud-Slinging
Long considered one of Democrats' top takeover opportunities in 2006, political observers both in Montana and nationally are still trying to understand how Tester was able to pull off a convincing victory in the June 6 primary over state Auditor John Morrison, who began the race as the favorite.
Morrison was widely seen as the stronger challenger to Burns until his campaign was submarined by allegations of an extramarital affair. As a result, Tester is just now putting together a full campaign team and remains largely undefined in the minds of Montana voters.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee is seeking to change that with an ad it launched last week that plays off of Tester's flat-top haircut -- a populist signature used throughout his political career.
In the ad, a "barber" tells a customer about a guy who came in to get a haircut because he was running for the Senate. "Guess he doesn't want anyone to know he opposes a gay marriage ban, thinks flag burning is a right and supports higher taxes," says the barber. "So I told him 'You're going to need more than a haircut to cover that up.'"
Days later, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee responded with ad noting that the barber in the NRSC spot is an actor "sent by Senator Burns's Washington friends to tell us lies about Jon Tester." The Democrats' ad then pivots to attack Burns for his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. "It's bad enough that Burns took thousands from sleazy lobbyist Jack Abramoff's associate -- then changed his vote," says the ad's narrator. "But trying to fool the people of Montana? That's wrong."
Those ads have prompted their own rhetorical back and forth between spokesmen for the two party committees.
NRSC spokesman Brian Nick said that "while Tester and his liberal lackeys obsess over the semantics of a barber, we'll continuously point out his opposition to protecting traditional marriage, his opposition to protecting the flag from desecration, and his record of tax hikes."
Phil Singer, communications director at the DSCC, retorted: "Every time Conrad Burns has gone on the air it's been to defend himself against Jack Abramoff or to lash out with a false accusation. That's hardly the sign of a strong argument for reelection."
If you live in Montana, this is only the beginning of a massive air and ground war that began months ago and won't end until Election Day. Starting last summer Democrats moved to frame the race as a referendum on Burns and his connections to Abramoff. Republicans are now trying to turn the contest into a debate over who is a better ideological fit for Montana -- painting Burns as a reliable conservative and Tester as a out-of-step liberal.
Tester is undefined as a candidate, but his primary showing -- boosted by the liberal blogosphere both in Montana and nationally -- is a sign that his support is more widespread than originally thought. Burns, however, has proven that he can win a close race against a tough opponent -- he beat Brian Schweitzer (D) in 2000 by a 51 percent to 47 percent margin (Schweitzer is now the state's governor).
Democrats made surprising gains in Montana in 2004, and the national political environment already strongly favors Democrats this year. Those two factors taken with Burns's slow response to efforts to slap him with the Abramoff label make this race a very dangerous one for the incumbent. (It is ranked as the third most likely takeover prospect this fall in the most recent addition of The Fix's Friday Line.)
Without a win in Montana, Senate Democrats have little chance of winning the majority back. As a result, expect a go-for-broke (literally) effort by both parties.
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