Senate Race Surprises Montana Democrats

Posted May 25, 2005 at 6:06pm

Democrats hoped to entice one top-notch candidate into next year’s contest with Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who they think is vulnerable.

Instead, they got two.

State Senate President Jon Tester officially jumped into the fray Tuesday, joining state Auditor John Morrison — despite party leaders’ attempts to dissuade one of the men from running.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) sat the two down, hoping one would back off, but “neither would blink,” said a Montana Democratic operative who did not want to be named.

It is not that the men dislike one another. Rather, both think Burns is beatable and each think he is the man for the job, Democratic sources concede.

“All those thoughts went through our decision-making process, but I just thought quite franky that I’d have a better shot at beating Conrad Burns,” Tester said in an interview Wednesday.

Morrison said: “I’m running because I think it’s time for a new U.S. Senator to represent Montana and I believe the work that I’ve done on affordable health insurance, protecting consumers and promoting small business are a good foundation for providing that kind of new leadership for Montana.”

Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said it is not bad for the party to have multiple candidates.

“The fact that we have such outstanding candidates coming forward to challenge Conrad Burns is a sign both that there is extraordinary enthusiasm in the state for replacing Sen. Burns as well as a sign that Democrats are becoming an increasingly stronger force in Montana politics,” he said. “People at the DSCC are going to bed easily at night knowing that we have such good candidates in the race.”

Tester and Morrison both pledge to run a clean campaign and to train their negative energy on Burns.

“It’s not my intent for this to be a negative primary,” Tester said. “We’ll give the people a choice. That’s positive … we’re both adults and I think we understand it’s important to get out and not be critical” of each other.

Morrison had only praise for Tester.

“Jon Tester is a good state Senator,” Morrison said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “His interest and others’ interest in this race just goes to show that Conrad Burns is on his way out.”

A political unknown, Bozeman Internet consultant Clint Wilkes, has also entered the fray, while former Missoula Mayor Daniel Kemmis recently decided not to run.

“I wanted to give Tester a chance to assess the situation,” he said Wednesday. “Now that he has decided to run, I will not be running.”

Kemmis added that was not an endorsement of Tester but an acknowledgement that the two would likely draw from the same pool of voters.

Kemmis, now the director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana, said he may endorse someone down the road.

Montana political watchers say that Morrison and Tester have very different styles and likely will draw from different segments of the primary pool come next June.

“Morrison is a very smooth public figure, a very good speaker, he’s very affable, handsome, telegenic — polished is the word,” said Jerry Calvert, a political science professor at Montana State University in Bozeman. “Jon Tester’s public persona is much more like that of Conrad Burns. He’s a rancher, he looks like a rancher — he has a crewcut and wears cowboy boots — he has that rural persona going.”

Tester, 48, hails from Big Sandy in north central Montana. He’s an organic farmer who works on land his family originally homesteaded almost 100 years ago.

He has served seven years in the state Senate, most of the time in a leadership position, and is barred by state law from seeking another term next year.

Morrison, 43, is a trial attorney raised in Whitefish, a northwestern city near Glacier National Park that has become a big resort town.

Morrison is a political legacy: His father served on the state’s elected Supreme Court, and his grandfather was a Nebraska governor.

He easily won re-election to his statewide post last year and by law cannot seek a third term overseeing the insurance and regulatory office.

“They both bring strengths to the position,” said Montana Democratic Party Chairman Bob Ream. “John Morrison is a very capable attorney who was twice elected statewide by big margins. He has statewide name recognition and is a very capable, articulate individual,” Ream said. “Jon Tester is a farmer and rancher, also very bright and articulate, and did an excellent job as president of the [state] Senate. He is a very charming individual — he excites a lot of people.

“And they look different too,” Ream said. “Tester does look like a farmer and Morrison does look like a trial lawyer, and that’s not to denigrate either one of them.

“They both will have a lot of supporters in the Democratic Party,” Ream concluded, stressing that the state party will remain neutral throughout the primary contest.

Beyond their personal qualities, the operatives said that Morrison, at least initially, has a financial advantage.

“Morrison is going to start out way ahead in the primary,” the source said. “He has a name identification advantage — Tester is going to have to get Morrison,” the source said. “Morrison has been preparing for this run for most of his life. He’ll also be able to raise a bunch of money, I’m very impressed with his level of preparedness to raise money. The $64,000 question is: Can Tester raise the money?”

Tester had a smart kickoff Tuesday, the source added. He got a lot of good press from his semi-truck tour (he is traveling the state in the tractor trailer he uses to take his goods to market) and is clearly taking a page out of the Schweitzer handbook, which is to be the every man farmer who works the grass roots.

Tester said he is not worried about fundraising.

“I probably won’t have the kind of money John’s got in the end, but we’ll have adequate funds,” he said.

Burns had about $1.5 million in the bank on March 31. Tester has said he hopes he can raise about $600,000 to $800,000 for the primary and that it will take about $6 million for the general election.

While Democrats try to put a good face on their abundance of candidates, Republicans say an active primary works in their favor.

“Anytime you have an ever-crowding primary field it’s an advantage to the incumbent,” said Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.