By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2006
HAMILTON, Mont. -- Sen. Conrad Burns gazed at a debate audience and asked if anyone could guess who was blocking efforts in Washington to control health-care costs.
"Abramoff?" shouted a heckler. The crowd at a packed high school auditorium here in Montana's Bitterroot Valley erupted in hoots and jeers.
Visibly angered, Burns, 71, shot the audience a don't-mock-me glare. But his debating point (blaming Democrats for health-care costs) and his senatorial dignity were swamped by the contempt of constituents who for nearly a year have been lapping up revelations about his ties to disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Burns, though, soldiered on through the catcalls and sneers -- and not without reason. He may be carrying Abramoff on his back, but in this thinly populated, Republican-leaning state, he continues to run neck and neck with his Democratic challenger, Jon Tester, president of the Montana Senate. Poll numbers have not moved much in months.
For all the influence-peddling that has been exposed in the run-up to the midterm election, corruption on Capitol Hill has not become a decisive issue -- here or in much of the country. The Abramoff scandal, having ended the careers of a few lawmakers and stained the reputations of several others, can certainly rile up ardent Democrats, as the debate here demonstrated. But it is not making fundamental changes in the nation's partisan landscape, especially in races, as with Burns in Montana, in which candidates are facing only unsavory stories rather than indictments or guilty pleas.
In an interview, the senator said his polling shows that most voters regard the "Abramoff deal" as merely a political liability and not a damning verdict on his character. Several pollsters and observers of politics in this state agreed with that assessment. The controversy is almost certainly the main reason Burns is in a competitive race this year, but by no means is it a guaranteed career-ender.
"The Democrats started way early with baseless allegations, and now a majority of people are saying, 'Oh, well,' " Burns said. "We are just moving on."
What, then, are the consequences of the oiliest congressional scandal in a generation as it percolates into races far from Washington? There are, of course, some early goners:
Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) decided not to run for reelection and pleaded guilty Friday to conspiracy and making a false statement as part of his admission that he traded official acts for campaign contributions and lavish meals in the Abramoff affair.
And Ralph Reed, the telegenic former Christian Coalition executive director, lost the Republican primary for Georgia's lieutenant governor after being tarred by his ties with the lobbyist.
The hand-me-down taint of scandal could still hurt Republicans trying to win the House seats abandoned by DeLay and Ney. "Bob Ney's transgressions resonate despite his departure," said Zack Space, a Democrat running for Ney's seat. "People are very hungry for change."
But in strongly Republican areas, scandal-driven change is far from a sure thing. In a special election to fill the California congressional seat vacated by Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R), now in prison after he admitted taking bribes from defense contractors, a well-funded Republican beat a Democratic challenger in June.
"Democrats ran on a corruption message in a district where a sitting member went to jail, and they didn't win, so how the heck are they going to use that message somewhere else?" asked Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
With Burns, though, the taint is not left over from someone else: He pressured the Interior Department to award a $3 million grant to a wealthy Indian tribe that was an Abramoff client, according to news accounts. A former top Burns aide worked with Abramoff's firm, and Abramoff himself told Vanity Fair that he and his clients received "every appropriation we wanted" from a subcommittee chaired by Burns. The senator is apparently not under investigation, but he did accept $150,000 in campaign donations from Abramoff, his lobbying team and his clients -- donations that Burns later returned.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is leading the Democrats' campaign committee in the Senate, acknowledged that the corruption issue is just one bullet, and hardly a silver one. Ethical controversies such as those Burns has weathered in Montana, he said, send a message to voters: "He's gotten too comfortable, we need a change." The general backlash is what endangers incumbents, "rather than corruption itself," said Schumer.
"Making Abramoff stick as a campaign issue is going to be hard for Democrats with a well-known Republican incumbent, but with Sen. Burns, who has such a direct link, it is pretty powerful stuff," said Fred Yang, a Washington-based Democratic pollster whose firm has worked on Montana races for decades.
Montana is a critical piece in the Democratic strategy to gain the six seats necessary to take control of the Senate. And the scandal, it seems, has shaped every aspect of the race here, beginning half a year before Democrats even had a candidate. Statewide television ads, paid for by the Democratic Party, pounded away last fall at Burns's ties to Abramoff. In the senator's first television ad of the 2006 campaign, he had to play defense, declaring that the lobbyist "never influenced me."
The Abramoff issue even seems to have dictated who would run against Burns. Tester said in an interview that the scandal was responsible, in part, for his easy primary victory in June over a better-known, better-financed rival, two-term state Auditor John Morrison. The Billings Gazette disclosed last spring that Morrison had an affair with a woman who later married a man investigated by Morrison's office.
The scandal apparently spooked Democrats longing for a candidate who could rail righteously about Abramoff without having to defend what was in his own closet.
"I think voters went into that primary saying to themselves, 'Who is the best candidate to beat Burns?'" said Tester, 50, a farmer and former schoolteacher from Big Sandy, population 703.
Tester, who has criticized the conduct of the Iraq war and promised health insurance for every family, has tried to introduce himself to voters statewide as the kind of real Montanan that he says Burns (a former auctioneer, football referee and radio announcer) no longer is.
Tester's campaign flaunts his authentic big-country look: NFL lineman shoulders, a belly that's headed south and a flattop haircut. His left hand is particularly authentic, missing three fingers that were gnawed off by a meat grinder when he was 9. "Still have that same grinder," Tester said, when asked about the hand.
"I don't look like the other senators," Tester boasts in a TV ad. "But isn't it time the Senate looked a little bit more like Montana?"
Another ad has Tester driving across Montana and talking about his pickup: "You see, special interests have a tight grip on Washington, leaving us out. It doesn't have to be that way. Special interests will never hitch a ride on this truck."
In recent weeks, Burns has damaged his own cause with a series of gaffes. He has insulted local firefighters (by observing in July that they did a "piss-poor job" of fighting a wildfire east of Billings), suggested that all taxi drivers are terrorists and joked about the immigration status of the "nice little Guatemalan man" who works on his house.
Still, Burns remains viable among many Montanans, according to pollsters. As Tester said, "This thing is far from over."
The senator's shield against Abramoff and his own rhetorical blunders may well be the state's extraordinarily strong economy. As growth slows in much of the country, Montana is bulling ahead, on track for its fourth consecutive year of 4 percent growth. Consumer sentiment in the state is at an all-time high, and the annual rise in per-capita income -- measured last year at 6.3 percent -- ranks third in the country. At 3.8 percent, the unemployment rate is about a percentage point below the national average.
"We are in the midst of a natural resource boom of historic proportions," said Paul Polzin, director of economic research at the University of Montana. "At the same time, all other industries are holding their own. This is benefiting exactly those counties where Burns has been strong."
Burns argues that the federal money he has sent Montana's way over the past 18 years helped ignite the boom -- and his argument resonates. It "matters a lot" for a state with just 935,000 residents, said Craig Wilson, a political science professor at Montana State University in Billings.
"Burns has been extraordinary in his ability to bring money to poor little old Montana," said Tom Britz, a consultant to the credit card industry who lives in the booming northwest Montana town of Whitefish. "When it is time to vote, the many people who have been touched by that money know where their bread is buttered."
What may also matter in the Senate contest here is the atypical optimism of many Montanans, as compared with voters' attitudes in most states.
"This is one of the few places in the country right now where people are not hankering for change," said John Russonello, a Washington pollster who works for Democrats and liberal nonprofit groups and who has led focus groups on social issues across Montana this year.
Unlike some Republican incumbents facing reelection, Burns has embraced the war -- and Bush's conduct of it -- as essential to the country's fight against terrorism. Betting that most Montanans see Iraq as he does, Burns has launched blistering TV and radio attacks on Tester, accusing him of taking money from "extreme liberal groups that mocked American deaths."
"Tester's not tough," one ad says. "He is deceitful, and he'll say anything to get elected."
In the recent debate, Tester responded to those accusations by saying that Burns, whom he described as bought and paid for by lobbyists such as Abramoff, is just not honest.
"Washington has changed him," said Tester, pointing at Burns. "The fact is we have to have people back there who have Montana values."
Burns smiled and said he had not changed and never would: "I have the same wife, the same kids; got the same principles, same values."
As pro-Tester hecklers booed, hissed, cursed and at one point called the senator "psycho," Burns spent much of the 90-minute debate reminding the crowd that he -- not Tester -- is a specialist in funneling federal money back home. By these lights, a candidate who knows the corridors of insider Washington might have an advantage. "It is going to take a guy who has got a little seniority and a little position to get it done," he said.