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Turning Up the Heat on Burns

Democrats looking across Montana’s Big Sky country see a state turning as blue as its nickname and think Sen. Conrad Burns’ (R) 2006 re-election bid makes a good test case.

Bolstered by gains on the state level, including their recent takeover of the governor’s mansion and looking at recent headlines and the close call Burns had in 2000, Democrats see a target.

“This is one of the top races in the country,” said Brad Martin, executive director of the state Democratic Party. “Sen. Burns should be very concerned.”

Republicans say Democrats are spinning a pie-in-the-sky scenario.

Last time around, Burns won a third term with only 51 percent of the vote against political neophyte Brian Schweitzer (D), despite outspending the farmer and rancher 2-to-1.

Schweitzer captured 47 percent of the vote and used his name recognition and organization from the 2000 campaign to win the gubernatorial election last year.

In 2004, Democrats made a near sweep of statewide offices, wrested control of the state Senate from the Republicans and forced a tie in the state House, giving them the Speakership because they control the governor’s mansion.

Furthermore, they believe Burns is more vulnerable today than he was last time.

In 1995, he promised to make 2000 his last campaign. He began this year with about $740,000 in the bank — far less than many of his colleagues who expect tough opposition — and his apparent ties to disgraced ber-GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff were examined recently by Roll Call and The Washington Post, prompting state Democratic Party Chairman Bob Ream to call for a Senate ethics investigation into his conduct.

“It’s a very serious set of charges; it just doesn’t smell right,” Martin said of revelations that some of Burns’ staffers accepted a Super Bowl trip paid for by Abramoff, who is under federal investigation. Additionally, Abramoff and lobbyists and tribes associated with him donated $137,000 to Burns between 2000 and 2002, and some aides bounced between Burns’ staff and Abramoff’s former lobbying firm.

“This looks like everything Montanans don’t want in a U.S. Senator,” Martin said.

Burns’ spokesman James Pendleton, who used to go by his radio disc jockey moniker J.P. Donovan, said Montana Democrats are trying to turn the Appropriations Committee member’s positive actions into a negative.

Burns helped the Saginaw Chippewa tribe of Michigan, which hired Abramoff as a lobbyist, secure $3 million in federal money to rebuild their school.

Democrats and editorial writers in Washington, D.C., and Montana have accused Burns of diverting money intended for poor tribes to the wealthier Chippewas.

Pendleton says that is not the case.

“The Montana Democrats’ argument that that money was meant for poor tribes and went to a wealthy tribe is ludicrous,” he said. The federal program “was not intended for poor tribes; it’s about replacing tribal schools at a faster rate. There is no means test.”

Pendleton added that Burns inserted the language into an Appropriations bill at the request of the Michigan delegation. As for the close relationship between Abramoff’s former firm, Greenberg Traurig, and Burns’ office, Pendleton said: “I don’t know that it was especially close. People go from working on the Hill to being lobbyists and so on on both sides of the aisle.”

As for Burns’ change of heart about stepping down in 2006, when he will be 72, Pendleton said: “A lot has changed in the last 10 years.”

Burns recognizes the importance seniority plays in getting things done on Capitol Hill and believes he can still do a lot to help Montana, Pendleton said.

“I think Sen. Burns is very excited to face the voters yet again and let them make that decision” regarding his broken term-limit promise, Pendleton said.

Montana Republicans say they are not worried about fallout from the Abramoff story.

“I think this whole thing is going to roll over relatively quickly … it’s a pretty short-lived story,” state Republican Party Executive Director Chuck Denowh said.

Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said such thinking is naïve.

“You don’t have to look any further than the last week to see why Conrad Burns is so vulnerable in 2006,” he said. “When you don’t advocate for your state, people remember that.”

No Democrat has come forward yet to challenge Burns, but the names of four credible possible candidates have been circulating.

Perhaps first among equals is state Auditor John Morrison, followed by newly minted state Senate President Jon Tester, former state House Speaker Daniel Kemmis and Leo McDonnell, president of R-CALF, a national cattleman’s association.

“All would be strong candidates, all would be very capable public servants … this spells real trouble for Sen. Burns,” Martin said.

Morrison is “beautiful, smart and rich,” one Democratic political operative said, noting that he has already made trips to Washington, D.C., to explore a bid.

“Tester is a lot like Schweitzer,” the operative said of the rancher/lawmaker. “You can’t meet him without thinking he’s the world’s greatest guy.”

Neither Morrison nor Tester would have anything to lose in a bid either, the operative noted. Tester is term-limited and would have to leave the state Senate after 2006 anyway, whereas Morrison was just re-elected in 2004 so he could seek Burns’ seat without giving up his state office.

Kemmis, who is now at the University of Montana’s Center for the Rocky Mountain West, said any consideration he has given the Senate race thus far does not even warrant mention. Some Democrats consider Kemmis, a former mayor of Missoula, too liberal for a statewide run.

An R-CALF spokeswoman, Shae Dodson, insisted that McDonnell is not eyeing the race.

Schweitzer would not talk about his candidate recruitment efforts, but knowledgeable sources said expect the governor to try to clear the field for one Democrat. As a result of their heated 2000 race, “there is no love lost between Schweitzer and Burns,” the political operative said. “I would be surprised if he wasn’t actively involved.”

The same operative said do not expect Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to publicly attack Burns, but count on him to stump on behalf of a strong nominee.

“Baucus wants to be chairman of Senate Finance Committee so he’ll look at it and do what’s appropriate,” the operative said.

Denowh said Democrats are getting their hopes up for nothing. Despite Democratic gains in Montana last year, President Bush won a big victory, and the GOP appears to maintain an edge in federal races.

“Schweitzer is their strongest candidate, that’s for sure,” Denowh said. “One of the reasons he won [the governorship] was because he had a Republican lieutenant governor, he knew he couldn’t win otherwise.”

Denowh added that when people talk about Montana as a purple state: “I just don’t see it.”

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