Politics & Policy

Conrad Burns, Survivor?

GOP control of the Senate is hanging by a thread, and the thread may be Conrad Burns.

To say that Burns supporters were grateful for the Bush visit would be an understatement. There’s been a lot of talk this year about states where GOP candidates might not benefit from a presidential visit. Montana isn’t one of them. Burns has also benefited from appearances by Vice President Dick Cheney, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and other Senate colleagues Mike Crapo, John Thune, Larry Craig, Ted Stevens, Pat Roberts, and others.

Tester hasn’t had that sort of high-profile, come-to-Montana support from top Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid hasn’t been there in a long time. John Kerry hasn’t been around. Nor have stars like Barack Obama. It’s true that Obama did attend a fundraiser for Tester last week — one that raised about $300,000 — but it was held in San Francisco, not Montana, and Tester traveled to the home of Susie Tompkins Buell, a major donor to liberal causes, to attend. Tester has also received money from Democratic senators like Barbara Boxer and Democratic wannabe senator Al Franken. He has also collected a lot of small donations from so-called “netroots” activists; he is a particular favorite of the Berkeley-based DailyKos website.

All that has created an opening for Burns to criticize Tester, with some merit, as the darling of out-of-state liberals who want to support his candidacy but don’t want to hurt it by actually showing up in Montana. “His friends are too liberal for Montana,” says Klindt. “Why won’t he bring Ted Kennedy to Montana? We’d love to see Ted Kennedy. What about John Kerry?”

Tester is fighting back with the same weapon he’s been using the entire campaign: Jack Abramoff. “Conrad Burns, delivering for Jack Abramoff, not us,” says a new Tester commercial. “Tax breaks for oil companies, pork-barrel earmarks, and getting millions for a client of Jack Abramoff — Conrad Burns, he’s been in Washington too long.” Burns’s ties to the scandal are what got Tester going in the first place, so it’s no time to change strategy now. Burns supporters call the Abramoff issue a “dead horse,” but the truth is, it’s simply unclear whether the scandal still has much resonance.

To rebut the growing sense that Burns has the momentum, Tester is claiming he’s ahead in the actual election. On Thursday, he released a statement saying that a pre-election exit poll done by a Democratic firm — that is, a poll of people who have voted early in the race — shows him ahead. “The poll, conducted by Lake Snell Perry Mermin this week, shows Tester leading Burns 58% to 37% among Montanans who have already voted,” the statement says. “According to the Montana Secretary of State’s office, 56,453 Montanans have cast early ballots as of this morning.”

Klindt calls the Tester statement “desperate and pathetic” while not actually denying it. But he does hint that Republicans have a better sense of what’s going on. “We don’t have to poll absentee ballots; we are the ones pushing them, tracking them and we are winning the absentee ballots on our way to winning the election,” Klindt says. “The fact that they have to poll absentee ballots means that they are about half a decade behind Republicans in get-out-the-vote technology.”

Maybe so; that certainly seems true of Democrats nationwide. And it seems undeniable that Burns has the momentum at this moment. In the end, Conrad Burns — who has come from behind in nearly every race he’s run — might pull this one out. Even if his Republican colleagues in Washington aren’t too thrilled about it.

Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President — and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.

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