CONRAD, Mont. (AP) — In this small farm town on the prairie, rebuilding a highway span that passes over a busy railroad track costs millions of dollars. Getting the money for that project and others is a big reason Republican Sen. Conrad Burns remains popular.
“Conrad Burns is like a neighbor,” said Cynthia Johnson, a Republican county commissioner who credits the three-term senator with securing millions for the state.
Mr. Burns, in the fight of his political life against Democratic state Sen. Jon Tester, has been citing such home-state money and projects to try to convince voters that they should re-elect him. For many people in this expansive state, it appears to be reason enough. Yet not everyone is on board.
Across town, at the Home Cafe on Main Street, 80-year-old Gordon Matheson says Mr. Burns is not honest, mentioning Jack Abramoff, the former Washington lobbyist who was convicted on federal corruption charges this year. Mr. Burns took, and has since given away, about $150,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff. Down the street, at the Super Dollar Store, 41-year-old clerk June Sasek mentions Abramoff as well.
Both Montanans are voting for Mr. Tester.
The race has become a referendum on Mr. Burns, and he is not helped by the unhappy mood of voters. Many expressed frustration with President Bush, who received almost 60 percent of the vote in Montana two years ago. Most believe the war in Iraq has gone on too long. Mr. Burns also has hurt his cause, with his mouth getting him into plenty of trouble:
He cussed out a Virginia firefighting crew after they spent days battling Montana wildfires.
A proponent of tough immigration laws, he referred to an employee as a “little Guatemalan.”
He said the United States is threatened by faceless terrorists who “drive taxi cabs in the daytime and kill at night.”
Mr. Tester is an organic grain farmer with a flattop haircut whose name is recognized from his days as president of the state Senate. He is capitalizing on voter frustration and Mr. Burns’ gaffes, campaigning that it is time for change.
Mr. Tester has trailed in fundraising — Mr. Burns had $5 million more than Mr. Tester at last count — but led the incumbent in several polls.
In the town of Polson, flower- and wine-shop owner Gerry Browning says she has not decided which candidate to support. “Do I set aside my moral and ethical values to keep a man in office because he’s powerful?” the 55-year-old woman asked.
Up the road, in the Republican stronghold of Kalispell, not far from Glacier National Park, 59-year-old Snuff Frisbee and four of his friends talk politics over their morning coffee. Most of the men are voting for Mr. Burns. But they agree there is a palpable frustration among voters.
Montana is a fiercely independent state, and few voters interviewed wanted to identify themselves by party. Though the state typically leans Republican in presidential elections, Mr. Burns is the only Republican to be elected senator from here in the past 50 years. In 2004, Democrat Brian Schweitzer became governor in a year that also saw his party make gains in the state legislature.
Hoping to continue that trend, Democrats aired television ads on Abramoff starting in summer 2005. Mr. Burns responded to the ads last January, saying he was not influenced by the lobbyist. Since then, most television ads have been negative: Mr. Burns has targeted Mr. Tester’s opposition to the Patriot Act, and Democrats have hammered Mr. Burns on ethics and his comments to the firefighters.