Fear of taxes roils Mon­tana race

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Robert No­vak

JMISSOULA, Mont.

ust three weeks ago, Repub­li­can Sen. Con­rad Burns ap­peared dead in try­ing for a fourth term. Polls gave his Demo­cratic op­po­nent, State Sen. Jon Tester, a dou­ble-digit lead, and that caused party lead­ers in Wash­ing­ton to write off Mr. Burns. But less than a week be­fore the elec­tion, Burns had closed to within a few per­cent­age points of Mr. Tester.

The rea­son was found in this Burns television ad: “Jon Tester isn’t be­ing hon­est when he claims he cut taxes [as pres­i­dent of the state se­nate]. In fact, Tester raised taxes on more than 16,000 small busi­nesses. . . . Tester sup­ports a $2,000 tax in­crease on fam­i­lies. Tester’s a politi­cian and a taxer who'll say any­thing to get elected.”

Thanks to a late in­fu­sion of cash from Wash­ing­ton, Mr. Burns is pound­ing Mr. Tester as a taxer too lib­eral for Mon­tana. This huge, sparsely pop­u­lated state re­flects the 2006 na­tional po­lit­i­cal chess game. Democrats want a ref­er­en­dum on Mr. Burns, while Repub­li­cans want a choice be­tween Mr. Burns and Mr. Tester. Which tac­tic works will de­ter­mine the win­ner here and per­haps con­trol of the Se­nate.

Mon­tana for the last half cen­tury has been red in pres­i­den­tial and blue in sen­a­to­rial elec­tions. Since 1952, Lyn­don John­son in ’64 and Bill Clin­ton ’92 are the only Democrats to carry the state for pres­i­dent. In that same pe­riod, only one Repub­li­can from Mon­tana was elected to the Se­nate: Con­rad Burns. Re­garded here as a po­ten­tial ac­ci­dent when­ever he opens his mouth, he barely sur­vived two of his three elec­tions.

Among Repub­li­can sen­a­tors, only Rick San­to­rum in Penn­syl­va­nia was viewed by the party's high com­mand as more vul­ner­a­ble than the 71-year-old Burns as this cam­paign cy­cle be­gan. Never wildly pop­u­lar, he was be­ing swept un­der by the Jack Abramoff scan­dal. His re­turn early this year of over $150,000 in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions re­lated to the dis­graced Repub­li­can lob­by­ist did not ar­rest his fall. Repub­li­can strate­gists in Wash­ing­ton thought Mr. Burns was gone and wanted him to drop his can­di­dacy.

But Mr. Burns had one as­set: Jon Tester, the sur­prise Demo­cratic pri­mary win­ner. The con­sen­sus here is that Mr. Tester is the only pos­si­ble Demo­crat who could lose to Mr. Burns. One busi­ness­man I in­ter­viewed said he felt Mr. Burns ought to go but is vot­ing for him be­cause Mr. Tester had a proven anti-busi­ness record.

Mr. Burns was pound­ing the state with the TV ad mes­sage that “Tax-hike Tester is too lib­eral for Mon­tana” and would have voted dif­fer­ently from Mon­tana’s other sen­a­tor, Demo­crat Max Bau­cus, on the Bush tax cuts, Medi­care pre­scrip­tion drugs, the en­ergy bill, Pa­triot Acts I and II, the flag amend­ment and the con­fir­ma­tion of Chief Jus­tice John Roberts. In re­sponse, Mr. Bau­cus, who likely will need Mr. Burns de­feated to re­gain the Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee chair­man­ship, quickly cut a ra­dio spot avow­ing his sup­port for Mr. Tester.

Mr. Burns’s prob­lem to­ward the end of the cam­paign be­came how to keep trum­pet­ing Mon­tanans’ fear of taxes. The na­tional Repub­li­can money tap had been closed for a hope­less cam­paign, as Mr. Burns’s agents pleaded for an ad­di­tional $300,000. Mr. Burns him­self got pres­i­den­tial ad­viser Karl Rove on his cell phone to beg for more money. By the Oct. 28-29 week­end, Repub­li­can Na­tional Chair­man Ken Mehlman said cash was on the way. What’s more, Vice Pres­i­dent Dick Cheney and Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush were sched­uled for Mon­tana vis­its on Nov. 2 and 3.

Mon­tana is a state where Mr. Bush’s pres­ence is not a li­a­bil­ity. Mr. Tester’s TV spots are free of Bush-bash­ing and stay away from Iraq. In­stead, the cam­paign theme is to con­nect Mr. Burns with “oil com­pany give­aways,” “big con­tracts to Hal­libur­ton” and “bil­lions in pork, in­clud­ing bridges to nowhere.” On one ad, Mr. Tester de­clares his op­po­si­tion to such cor­po­rate wel­fare and de­clares: “This won’t get me con­tri­bu­tions from Jack Abramoff, but it is sure the right thing to do for Mon­tana.”

Wrap­ping Abramoff around Mr. Burns may have been enough to de­feat him three weeks ago, but this elec­tion now looks too close to call — thanks to fear of taxes. Mr. Tester has lashed back to claim, in­ac­cu­rately, that Mr. Burns ad­vo­cates a 23 per­cent na­tional sales tax on top of in­come taxes. The tax is­sue, though not em­pha­sized by ei­ther party na­tion­wide, is mit­i­gat­ing dam­age to the Repub­li­can Party.

Robert No­vak is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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