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Montana Senate: Fast and Furious Mud-Slinging

No Senate race in the country is as engaged as the Montana contest between three-term incumbent Conrad Burns and state Sen. Jon Tester.

Jon Tester
Jon Tester pulled off a stunning upset in the Democratic primary. Now, can he unseat a three-term incumbent? (AP Photo)

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."

Sen. Conrad Burns
Sen. Conrad Burns listens during a Capitol Hill hearing last month. Can he shake off ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to win a fourth term? (The Washington Post)

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.

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 20, 2006; 3:42 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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The most idiotic thing about the Republican ad, even more idiotic than the lies, is the accent of the phony barber. No Montanan speaks that way. Do they think Montana is in the south?

Posted by: John | June 29, 2006 6:01 PM | Report abuse

Chris-If Jon Tester wants to win Anything and I mean a Bake Off even...he's going to have to get his teeth into the dentist for whitening!

Posted by: M Boughton | June 23, 2006 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Chris-Your position that a run against corruption won't stand on its own is good. But lets take it one step further...Democrats need to concentrate on the Big Picture and make sure all Americans do the same in the November elections. That Big Picture is that our system of checks and balances needs to be restored. Neither party should be able to shut out the other and a better balance will foster true debate. After visiting Philadelphia and asking Ben Franklin's grave about this-I see its the only solution. The founding fathers were just a bunch of guys complaining about the British in the City Tavern (great soup there). We have to stop looking at micro-politics and start thinking bigger. Stop focusing on the districts and the individual races and look at what is happening to our country-and a pefectly good Constitution. Its time to take our country back fellows!

Posted by: M Boughton | June 23, 2006 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Don't forget Clinton won Montana in 1992. Grassroots libertarian progressivism (which is in fact different from modern urban liberalism) plays well in the Mountain West region, and if more national Dems would catch on, Montana, Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona would all be much more competitive, if not leaning blue right now.

Posted by: Michael | June 21, 2006 5:31 PM | Report abuse

"Traditional" Republican voters, like myself and others in Montana, have had their party hijacked by corrupt, bedwetting chickenhawks and religious fanatics. It never ceases to amaze me how neocons are so scared of their own shadows that they would readily abandon traditionally conservative States Rights, individual privacy, and anti-"Big Gov" positions in the name of "security". In the late '80's, I worked for a conservative direct mail company that solicited HUGE amounts of money aimed at shrinking government, privacy issues, and states rights. All of which are now being plowed under by the same groups. And laughably, I see people like Rush Limbaugh bashing privacy rights by touting the passage of the Patriot Act, and then running to the ACLU for privacy protections in his drug-abuse case, in the same breath! Talk about a screwed-up party... I WILL vote Democrat AGAIN for both houses and Presidential elections for the protections of my children's rights. And starting this year, I will also vote for conservative Democrats in local races as well.

Posted by: Matthew | June 21, 2006 12:45 PM | Report abuse

For a glimpse of the level of political sophistication of homegrown Montanans, look no further than the conduct of Bradley Molnar during his 2004 run for Public Service Commission. He won, but he and a supporter who wrote a sleazy letter to the editor of the Billings Gazette had charges filed against them by the Democratic candidate. The charges, violation of Montana Code 13-37-131, making false statements, have been dismissed:
However, the finding stated that while Molnar and his friend "unquestionably made false or misleading statements, there was insufficient evidence that either man did so with malice or reckless disregard."
Montanans deserve better than the sleaze that is inspired by the Republicans, from the bottom up. The Dem candidate, by the way, Russ Doty, was totally vindicated and found to have been completely honest in all of his campaign statements.

Posted by: Blue Island | June 21, 2006 11:26 AM | Report abuse

I don't think anyone who actually knows Montana politics is scratching their head over Tester's big win in the primary. Some forget that good old-fashioned grass roots politics works better than money. They should lose the notion that he who raises the most money wins.

One poster talked about needing west coast liberals to move here for Tester to get elected. That person knows little of Montana politics.

We already have a Democrat in the US senate, Max Baucus, senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committe and he got nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2002.
Montana is not a "red state" locally.

We may even give our electoral votes to a Democratic presidential candidate if he bothers to campaign here. Not a single one has since LBJ. The "battle ground state" strategy has failed Democrats in the last two elections

Democrats have always been a strong part of the scene here in Montana. Since statehood, there has always been at least one Democrats in the US Senate from Montana.

Only two Republicans have managed to serve in the Senate from Montana. Burns is the second one and barely survived a challenge from Brian Schwitzer in 2000. Schweitzer was a politically unknown farmer when he ran against Burns.He had to build name recognition from ground zero.

Currently four of five posts that require state-wide election are filled by Democrats. That includes Governor, Attorney General, State Auditor, and state Superintendent of Public Education. Only the Secretary of State is a Republican.

Democrats controlled the Senate and House in the 2005 session of the Legislature. There is more than enough precident for a Democrat getting elected in Montana.

Tester is more of a prairie populist than a "liberal" in the way most urban Democrats view a liberal. His positions on some items will not please urban liberals. But he comes from the heart of Montana, with deep roots. He also comes from the state's traditional swing area. If everything else remains as was in 2000 and Tester takes the Golden Triangle and the Hi-Line, he's got the election sewed up. He will get a bigger majority than that because he has Montanans energized in a way they haven't been since the drive for the new Constitution in the 1970s.

Don't try to superimpose stereotypical right vs left on this election. It is not going to play that way. Tester will win because the majority of Montanans itentify with him.

Burns is an import from Missouri. Tester goes back generations in Montana. But Tester is also charismatic as Burns is not.

Posted by: Alan in Missoula | June 21, 2006 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Hey FH, nice to hear from you, thanks. And I hope things are good with you too! You above most people will appreciate this. But part of why i havent had time to post is b/c ive been working on a biofuels project with *gasp* a REPUBLICAN. Very exciting stuff actually. But it's interesting b/c there is SO much interest in this in the heartland that I cant help but think that it has to be a sign of failed leadership or poor choices on Bush's part that we aren't way way beyond where we are now with alternative energy and particularly biofuels. I mean, Bush is really missing out on helping his own party and its constituents. But hey, thats Bush for ya.

Re: the Tester ad from Burns. It's just stupid. To call it insulting would be to "dignify" it as being poignant when it is really just shallow nonsense. And talking bad about a new agrarian whose dog follows him around wherever he goes. This is a great election for the Dems b/c as bad as Burns is, the election is really going to be about how GOOD Tester is for Montana and the USA. We need a John Tester in Washington D.C.

Btw, did anybody catch "The Dark Side" on Frontline tonight on PBS? All about Cheney and Rumsfeld's war against the CIA, the battle for covert intel. Not all that much that was new, but it was most likely never laid out in that manner. Truly unbelievable stuff. A totally internal spy vs. spy battle going on within the U.S. govt while we were on the brink of a major war. Sheesh. I think history is really going to look at this White House with severe contempt b/c of the decisions they made and manner in which they carried them out. Even with the most objective view, it is pretty obvious that they used 9/11 as an excuse, fabricated WMD evidence, purposefully lied to the world, and derailed the War on Terror into Iraq.

As I've said a million times, the sooner we get Dems in the majority and the sooner the Republicans take their party back from the NeoCons, the better off we all will be. And that goes double for the men and women serving in Iraq.

Posted by: FairAndBalanced? | June 21, 2006 12:45 AM | Report abuse

FairAndBalanced: Hope all is well in your world. Have not seen you post much lately.

I have not seen the ad mentioned in this article, but what is that with the tip thing. That is just so wrong on so many levels. Mud gets thrown around in every political contest in one way or another...but when you start having actors portraying your opponent in a demeaning way - that just seems to be crossing the line.

Posted by a moderate Republican

Posted by: FH | June 20, 2006 8:53 PM | Report abuse

I would join with others here and ask that anyone who posts an allegation, or posits a 'fact', please back it up with credible documentation. It will improve the level of discourse.

Say, for instance, that someone remarks, 'liberals are for higher taxes' or 'Jon Tester is for higher taxes', please allow all of us here to know the source of your information. This will immediately elevate this site above the level of most adveritsing and reporting.

Posted by: Drindl | June 20, 2006 8:45 PM | Report abuse

The barber ad is PATHETIC. Just pathetic. Comically so.

I love how CC says:

"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..."

and then later on:

"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."

Who are these "political observers" you are associating with, Chris, who can't put that together. And what are they smoking? Then again this is hardly the first time your "political observer" friends have been wildly wildly off-target.

Tester vs. Burns campaign is going to be fun to watch, and will be the most satisfying Dem victory of '06 if Tester wins.

Posted by: FairAndBalanced? | June 20, 2006 7:40 PM | Report abuse

You've got to understand that the problem is thta so many Republicans can't or won't display the basic ability to explain the difference between a legitimate disucssion of the issues and pure attack slime. It's the only way they can sleep at night, you know.

Posted by: Steve | June 20, 2006 6:11 PM | Report abuse

I hate when people just enter *their own personal assumptions* into the fact record and move on from there.

James O'Brien wrote: "It just fascinates me how Democrats use all of the same dirty tricks in their campaigns as Republicans and we still have Candyland bloggers pretending to be offended by one side over the other. Can we get past the hypocrisy and get some thoughts on the race?"

Sir, would you please provide to us in factual detail that's verifiable (links to news stories, etc) exactly what Democratic "dirty tricks" you talk about? If you're making the claim, you should find it very easy to back it up, right?

Thank you.

Posted by: Gaithersburg, MD | June 20, 2006 5:55 PM | Report abuse

It just fascinates me how Democrats use all of the same dirty tricks in their campaigns as Republicans and we still have Candyland bloggers pretending to be offended by one side over the other. Can we get past the hypocrisy and get some thoughts on the race?

Posted by: James O'Brien | June 20, 2006 5:33 PM | Report abuse

Morrison lost in a landslide to Jon Tester not merely because of allegations that he had an affair--he admitted the affair--but because of concerns that Morrison allowed the affair to compromise his performance as Montana's securities commisioner. The mainstream media did not adequately cover this story. But it was admirably exposed by the Missoula Independent, an alternative weekly. Here is their initial coverage of the scandal:

Posted by: Ross Best | June 20, 2006 5:25 PM | Report abuse

Hmmm, let's see we have American kids dying in a shi* hole country in the mid -east, and the best the repugs can come up with is gay marriage and flag burning. i guess tax breaks, gay marriage and flag burning come before finding a way out of Iraq before another 2,500 nineteen and twenty year olds die, but what the hell as Tony Snow said "its just a number".......

Posted by: TheIrishCurse | June 20, 2006 5:24 PM | Report abuse

Don't count Burns out. He's sleazy, corrupt, manipulative and "factually challenged." But he's also the poster-boy for the angry, sleazy, corrupt, manipulative and factually-challenged good-ol'-boys who've been running this state for years.
I think this race will hinge on how many liberal west-coast types move here this summer. I'd normally tell 'em to stay away....but not this year! C'mon over....let's kick the *&#%^$# all the way to Hades.

Posted by: MtDave | June 20, 2006 5:12 PM | Report abuse

I consider myself a moderate, somewhat thoughtful follower of Montana politics and my read on this race is that Burns will be handily defeated. Tester is a native Montana farmer and will paint Burns as a Missouri transplant with real ethical problems. If any further shoes drop in the Abramoff scandal implicating Burns it'll be a landslide

Posted by: mtskinsfan | June 20, 2006 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Chris, your check is in the mail.

Keep up the good work!

Posted by: Ken Mehlman | June 20, 2006 4:29 PM | Report abuse

I have a dream that somewhere, sometime, at some location, a member of the press actually does his or her job and actually asks questions about the gay marriage issue to those whose campaigns play solely to slogans about "protecting" traditional marriage.

In my dream, the unnamed reporter who actually cares about things like digging down for truth and facts, will ask the candidate who's spouting the "traditional marriage" sloganeering.

"Mr. Smith, you say that you are for *protecting* marriage by wanting to ban gay marriage. Would you please tell me, in factual detail that is measurable, verifiable, and quantifiable, exactly what damage will occur to your marriage, my marriage, or the institution in general when two gays marry? Again, if you're claiming an attack, it should be easy for you to be able to give me (the reporter) specific details about what damage occurs in terms that I can quantify and verify. Your response please."


But alas, reporters are lazy. They are all to willing to accept "cut and run" or "protecting traditional marriage" sound bytes without asking for factual back-up to those bytes.

Where has the 4th estate gone to?

Posted by: Gaithersburg, MD | June 20, 2006 4:28 PM | Report abuse

What Chris left out of this piece is that also in that commercial in which the NRSC hired the fake actor barber, he says "and he(Tester) didn't leave a tip either".

How pathetic have the republican liars become that they have to put an actor on TV to tell lies about Tester? They don't even have the guts to say this stuff themselves. For the record, Tester's real barber, Bill Graves, was asked about it:

"That guy in the ad isn't a barber. He's an actor and he's never touched Jon Tester's hair," said Graves. He said that he is the only person who has cut Tester's hair in the last 15 years, except for his 22-year-old granddaughter, Megan McKiernan, and a barber in Havre.

But here's the thing that really frosted Graves.

The Republicans' radio ad features the "barber" saying, "didn't leave much of a tip, either." The TV ad goes a step farther: "Didn't leave a tip, either."

However, Tester does tip, said Graves.

"Oh, yeah ...He's very generous," he said.

Classy, Karl Rove, classy. And good job leaving that out, Chris.

Posted by: Ohio guy | June 20, 2006 4:26 PM | Report abuse

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