Despite occasional rumors to the contrary, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) will seek re-election in 2006.
“We’re running,” Burns said in an interview this week.
“You oughta see my schedule to raise money in the next six months,” the former radio broadcaster, who turned 70 on Tuesday, added.
No one seems to know how the retirement rumors began, but Montana Republican Party Executive Director Chuck Denowh said he never believed them.
“We always expected him to run again,” Denowh said. “I’m not sure where the rumors came from.”
Incumbent or no incumbent, Democrats, bolstered by gains on the state level including their recent takeover of the governor’s mansion and looking at the close call Burns had in 2000, see a target.
“He’s in our sights,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Phil Singer. “He’s going to have a race.”
Democrats do not have a candidate yet, but they do hold all but one statewide office and control the state Legislature.
Last time around, Burns won a third term with only 51 percent of the vote against political neophyte Brian Schweitzer (D), despite outspending the farmer and rancher 2-to-1.
Schweitzer captured 47 percent of the vote and used his name recognition and organization from the 2000 campaign to win the gubernatorial election last year.
No one expects him to abandon his newly won executive position for a rematch against Burns in 2006, however.
Burns had several factors working against him last time, including a broken term-limit pledge and a racial slur for which he had to apologize.
Denowh says Burns is in much stronger shape going into 2006.
“His approval ratings are the highest they’ve ever been, which will be a real deterrent on any challenger,” Denowh said.
He also said that Schweitzer was an unusually tough opponent, the likes of which Democrats are unlikely to find again.
Schweitzer spent $2 million on the 2000 Senate race, compared to the $4.3 million Burns spent. Through Sept. 30, Burns had $635,000 in his campaign account.
“They really don’t have anybody waiting in the wings who can replicate what [Schweitzer] did in the governor’s race,” Denowh said. “They don’t have a very deep bench in Montana.”
But five out of six statewide officeholders in the Mountain State are Democrats, three of whom were just elected to second terms. Democrats also won back the state Senate in 2004 and forced a tie in the state House, giving them the Speakership because they control the governor’s mansion.
“I think we’re on an upward trajectory,” Montana Democratic Party Chairman Bob Ream said. “We have gained seats in each of the last four elections.”
As for Burns, Ream predicted his party will field another strong challenger.
“I think he is beatable and I think with a good candidate like we had last time ... I think he’s vulnerable,” Ream said.
Ream declined to name any would-be challengers, but state Auditor John Morrison is said to be eyeing the race, as are former state House Speaker Dan Kemmis, newly named state Senate President Jon Tester and state Sen. Mike Cooney, a former Montana secretary of state.
Denowh said Burns has suffered from a humility problem in the past, but he has done a better job of raising his profile back home and letting Montanans know what he has done for them, all of which will help him in 2006.
“He isn’t good at promoting himself back here in Montana,” Denowh said. “He has a modesty problem and has had [difficulty] getting the recognition he deserves.
“We had some tough legislative races last time but Burns has long coattails in this state; it’s going to be a good year for Republicans with him leading the ticket,” he predicted.