As the election gets closer, all eyes are on the contested Senate elections: Missouri, Tennessee, New Jersey, and Virginia. And from time to time, the major news networks look at a second-tier of important races, including Montana. But Montana is taking center stage this week, as many question whether a visit from the President will put this state back in play.
Montana seemed for long to be a lost hope for the Democrats. Conservative leaning voters re-elected President Bush with a 20.5% lead over Democratic Nominee John Kerry. But this year, as incumbent Senators have become an endangered species nationwide, Senator Conrad Burns finds himself fighting for survival.
The issues this election are partly national, partly local, and mostly about the candidates. Burns' campaign has gone to great lengths to portray moderate Democrat Jon Tester as a liberal. While many in democratic circles would have written Montana off on ideology alone, a gradual partisan shift has taken place. Democrats, traditionally endangered in Montana politics, took control of the legislature and the governor's office in 2004.
Keeping political tides in mind, the race is about the candidates' character, and integrity. Senator Burns has been on thin ice with Montana's voters since close ties with Jack Abramoff, a former lobbyist who funneled campaign cash to Burns and has since pleaded guilty to fraud, conspiracy, and invasion, became public.
Consistent with national trends, Montana voters disapprove of the war in Iraq more now than at any other point. With the war raging, and wrapping up the deadliest month in Iraq this year with over 101 soldiers killed, Republican candidates nationally have been distancing themselves from President Bush. But in Montana, Bush is rushing to Burns' side.
Whether it's because Burns is among an increasingly rare bread of Republicans still willing to share the oxygen in a room with the President, or because the closeness of his race demands large-scale fundraising assistance is unclear. What is clear, is that Burns is taking a clear risk by increasing voters' associations of him with institutional Republicans.
I hope for Burns' sake that the President's visit is a successful Get Out The Vote (GOTV) tool, or that it provides his base with the motivation needed to close Tester's perceived electoral edge. It depends on where you are and who you ask the kind of answer you get to the following question; "Is President Bush better or worse, in your opinion, than Jack Abramoff."
Jack Abramoff is a known evil for Conrad Burns, and Burns' proximity to alleged corruption is a source of his political vulnerability. In the court of public opinion, it will surely signify the new nature of voters in the current political climate, if Bush's behavior helps or hurts Burns in the polls.
If Bush's visit helps Conrad Burns, the election will likely have energized Burns' supporters, who might otherwise feel apathetic. It could also help Burns if Bush can deliver enough funds to vault him across the finish line.
If Bush's visit hurts Conrad Burns, it could be indicative of a dormant national Democratic tidal wave ready to pounce on election day. It could also prove that voters place ultimate responsibility for the missteps of the Bush Administration and Republican leadership in Washington. In the end, this case comes down to the very fiber of all Congressional races throughout the U.S. – is it time yet for change?