TOPICS > Politics

Incumbents Fight for Senate Seats in Montana, Washington

October 10, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: With just four weeks to go until the midterm elections, congressional Republicans seem to be fighting a rising tide of voter dissatisfaction with their performance.

Three new national polls out this week show Republicans losing ground to Democrats on what has been a GOP strength: national security. For example, when the USA Today-Gallup poll asked, “Which party would best handle terrorism?” Democrats came out on top 46 percent to 41 percent.

Republicans also appear to be suffering from the fallout from the Mark Foley congressional page scandal. For instance, when the New York Times-CBS poll asked, “Which party comes closer to sharing your moral values?” 47 percent chose the Democrats, while 38 percent chose the Republicans.

Against that backdrop, we look at two competitive Senate races in the West. First to Montana, where Republican Senator Conrad Burns is fending off a fierce challenge from Jon Tester, president of the State Senate.

For the latest on this race, we turn to Mike Dennison, a reporter for the Lee Newspaper Chain in Montana.

And, Mike, welcome.

In Conrad Burns, you have a three-term incumbent. This is widely perceived as a red state, and yet the reports are he’s having a hard time against Jon Tester. Is that right? And, if so, why?

MIKE DENNISON, Reporter, Lee Newspaper Chain: That is correct. I don’t think anyone should be surprised that Burns is having a tough re-election race. Montana is often referred to as the red state. That’s because it usually goes for the Republican presidential candidate, but in local politics Montana has always been closely split between Democrats and Republicans.

In fact, Burns is the only Republican to be elected as a U.S. senator from Montana in the last 50 years. And he is unabashedly conservative in a state that is not necessarily right down-the-line conservative. It’s fairly closely split.

He had a close race six years ago, so it’s no surprise he has a close race again.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, tell us about Jon Tester. He’s been described as a populist Western Democrat, somewhat different from some of the eastern Democrats we see running. Do you think that’s a fair description?

MIKE DENNISON: I think it is. Tester is — if you’ve seen him, he’s a guy with a flat-top haircut. He’s a farmer. He’s a big guy. He’s got a big pot belly, so he’s not like a button-down type of Democrat you might see back East or on the West Coast.

His campaign is based largely on his claim that, in Washington, D.C., that things are not going well for the middle class. The Congress is representing corporate interests over the little guy. This is his whole campaign. He says,” I’m the guy to change that sort of dynamic. It’s time for a change in direction, and I’m the guy who is going to provide it.”

Political ads for Montana Senate

MARGARET WARNER: All right, well, now we have an ad from each candidate. And the first one is from the Democrat, Jon Tester, followed by the Republican senator, Conrad Burns. Let's listen.

JON TESTER (D), Montana U.S. Senate Candidate: After 18 years, Washington has changed Senator Burns. It's not just the favors he's been doing for lobbyists; it's how he'll say anything about me to keep his job.

Where I stand is clear: I support our troops. We'll fight to protect our country and our families, and we'll work to make America energy independent. It's time to end Senator Burns' Washington ways, because wouldn't it be better to bring Montana values to Washington instead of the other way around?

I'm Jon Tester, and I approve this message.

STATE SEN. BOB KEENAN (R), Montana: I ran against Conrad Burns in the primary and served eight years in the Montana Senate with Jon Tester. The Tester you see on TV is all conservative talk, but he votes with the liberal left because he's one of them.

Tester has a record of raising your taxes. He even co-sponsored a bill to increase income taxes on people making $24,000 per year. Make no mistake: We can't afford the real Jon Tester. Conrad Burns is the best choice for Montana in the U.S. Senate.

SEN. CONRAD BURNS (R), Montana: I'm Conrad Burns, and I approve this message.

MARGARET WARNER: So what do those two ads tell us about the tenor and nature of this race?

MIKE DENNISON: I think those ads very well sum up what's going on in this race. You heard Tester delivering his tried-and-true message that Washington has gone awry, we need a change of direction that's more in line for the middle class and the little guy. "And I'm the person who represents that interest."

On the other side, you heard -- the person in the ad was the Senate minority leader from Montana, Bob Keenan, who actually ran against Burns in the primary and lost to him. And now he's coming out and more or less reading the Burns' script that Jon Tester is a liberal, he wants to raise your taxes, he wants to cut and run in Iraq, he's part of the Eastern establishment.

This is kind of their approach to attacking Tester and saying he's not representative of middle-of-the-road-to-conservative Montana.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the Tester ad also talks, in criticizing Senator Burns, talks about Washington lobbyists. Now, that's a certain vulnerability for Conrad Burns, isn't it, with the Abramoff scandal?

MIKE DENNISON: Yes. That's...

MARGARET WARNER: Explain that.

MIKE DENNISON: ... referring obliquely to Jack Abramoff. You know, Jack Abramoff, as some of your viewers may know, is the lobbyist who has been disgraced and represented the Indian tribes and took a lot of their money. And he gave more money -- he and his associates and his clients gave more money in campaign contributions to Conrad Burns than any other member of Congress, about $150,000, back in the 2001-2003 era.

That's the theme that the Democrats have been hammering on Burns since last fall. The Democratic Party has run ads against Burns trying to soften him up for this race. And it kind of put him on the defensive. He had to come out and run his own ads, saying, "I wasn't influenced by Abramoff."

I think it's almost kind of put him behind in this race. Most of the polls that I've seen or heard of have had Tester leading since earlier this year, since after he won the primary.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mike, just real briefly, are the Republicans, the national Republicans, putting money or people into trying to save this seat for Burns?

MIKE DENNISON: Oh, yes, they are. The Republican National Committee, I think, is ready to spend money on this race. The NRSC has been involved, and also we've seen Laura Bush, Dick Cheney, Bill Frist, John Warner. Lots of the heavy hitters from D.C. have been out to Montana to campaign for Burns and raise money.


MARGARET WARNER: Mike Dennis, thank you so much.

And now to our second Western Senate race in Washington State. There, freshman Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell is being challenged by a political newcomer, Republican businessman Mike McGavick. For insight into this race, we turn to David Olson, professor of political science at the University of Washington.

And welcome, Professor. Now, Maria Cantwell won in a squeaker last time in 2000, in fact a recount. And she was considered vulnerable going into this campaign. How does it stand now?

DAVID OLSON, Professor, Political Science: Well, you're quite correct in saying that she came into this race with some vulnerabilities. A year ago, the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee identified her as one of the six most vulnerable to defeat.

Since then, a number of things have developed in the campaign. And the latest polls that I have seen rank her 8 percent to 11 percent ahead of the challenger, Mike McGavick. So there's been a long distance that has occurred between what was happening about a year ago and where the campaign sits today.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, tell us about the challenger, Mr. McGavick. He's a newcomer.

DAVID OLSON: Mike McGavick is a very attractive candidate. He comes from an old line respected family in Seattle. He is very smart. My political science department gave him our annual distinguished alumnus award.

He is fashioning himself as "Mr. Outsider" in this race. He's never held public office, but he has served on the inside in D.C., both as the campaign manager for Senator Slade Gorton and his chief of staff. So he wants to position himself as being both anti-Washington, D.C., as "Mr. Outsider," and "Mr. Insider" who will hit the ground running when that time occurs.

Campaign ads for Washington Senate

MARGARET WARNER: All right, well, let's look at a sample ad from each. And the first one comes from Senator Cantwell, and the second one is McGavick's.

SEN. MARIA CANTWELL (D), Washington: The ports of Seattle and Tacoma are the third busiest in the nation, creating jobs and economic growth for the entire Northwest. The Bush administration isn't doing enough to protect our ports and borders.

I've been pushing to require locks and seals on cargo containers, background checks on port workers, and screening for nuclear material. I'm Senator Maria Cantwell, and I sponsor this message because nothing is more important than our security right here at home.

MIKE MCGAVICK (R), Washington U.S. Senate Candidate: You know, it is time for common sense to have a little outbreak in Washington, D.C. You look back there, and you just see all this partisan nonsense and avoiding solving problems. And yet we sit here knowing that the debt's out of control, that we're a nation at war, that our borders aren't controlled, that health care costs too much, that Social Security is going broke.

We have got to have a change, but the only way we can change it is by changing the people back there.

MCGAVICK SUPPORTER: Well, you better start hurrying and write some laws, because you got a lot to do.

MIKE MCGAVICK: I'm Mike McGavick, and I approve this message.

MARGARET WARNER: What do those ads tell us, particularly Maria Cantwell's, about the issues she's running on?

DAVID OLSON: Well, the Cantwell ad is classic Washington politics. One out of every four jobs in the state of Washington is tied to international trade. Our ports are huge, and they are hugely vulnerable. And most of them in the state of Washington are located near central business districts.

So she's campaigning on a theme of the Bush administration not paying sufficient attention to the maritime cargo side of international trade as opposed to what's happened on the aviation side. She also has run a campaign that stresses issues around the environment, and around energy, and what we've just seen, in jobs creation and the importance of safety around those jobs.

MARGARET WARNER: And then Mr. McGavick you said is trying to run against Washington or, as we saw, he's running against the way Congress is operating, but yet his party controls both houses of Congress. How is he squaring that circle?

DAVID OLSON: Well, this is precisely the issue with the challenger. He is running against a Congress that he says is out of control and a Congress that has a culture that precludes it from doing anything.

So here he is mounting this outsider campaign against Washington, D.C., when the Republican Party control the White House, they control the House of Representatives, and they control the Senate, to which he aspires. That means in Washington State that his campaign issue about "Mr. Outsider" is having difficulty tracking. It is not sticking as strongly as he would like, because, as a Republican, he's running against his fellow party members.

MARGARET WARNER: And briefly, is the Foley congressional page scandal having any appreciable impact, either in what they're talking about or in their standings?

DAVID OLSON: There are two penultimate issues in this campaign that aren't being debated that much but they are there. One is the war in Iraq that is not doing McGavick any favors. The other is the sleaze factor in the Congress.

It is not just the Foley issue, although it is Foley, but it's also Duke Cunningham, and it's also Jack Abramoff, and neither of these are doing a favor for the challenger.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, David Olson, thank you so much.

DAVID OLSON: Thank you.