Gallatin native Conrad Burns is a Republican Senator from the strongly Democratic state of Montana and was seen as vulnerable in the election of 1994. But this campaign, following his freshman year in Washington, D.C., reveals much about the Missouri man serving Montana.
According to the anti-Washington gospel of the 1994 elections, Sen. Conrad Burns ought to be a sitting duck. Among the Republican incumbents, his seat once looked most vulnerable to a Democratic gain that could balance a loss somewhere else. But on Nov. 2, just days before the election, his hard work and rich campaign treasury seem to be carrying Burns, despite a series of weaknesses that might cripple another candidate.
First, Burns won only 51 percent of the vote in 1988 in a strong Democratic state.
Second, the freshman senator’s main claim to fame is that he has taken 68 lobbyist-paid trips and has often voted the way his hosts at events such as the Kentucky Derby and the Orange Bowl would like. Then he voted to support a filibuster against a bill banning such trips.
Even The Billings Gazette, which endorsed him in an editorial Monday, said that “Burns’ propensity to sit on the lobbyists’ knees is an issue.”
Jack Mudd, a former University of Montana law school dean who is running against him, repeats that Burns is “too close to lobbyists,” as he put it in a Kiwanis Club speech Tuesday in Missoula.
Third, Burns, a conservative Republican, has made no legislative mark in Washington.
Then last month, Burns repeated a common racial epithet for blacks when he was telling of being asked by a constituent how he managed to live with all the blacks in Washington. “It’s a hell of a challenge,” he said he replied. He apologized. When he was asked in a debate what he would do in Congress to help the minorities, he said the answer was to “live by example — it’s what we do and how we deal with those people.”
But Burns is doing fine, despite all that and despite his fractured grammar and despite clear proof of the falsity of his major television advertisement, in which he says he has never voted to increase taxes.
Burns seems about to become the first Republican ever re-elected to the Senate from Montana, the most Democratic of the Rocky Mountain states, where a strong labor tradition grew from the mines and railroads. Recent polls show him with leads of about 15 percentage points.
Mudd relishes exploring the complexities of policy in a televised debate and is unhappy that there was been only one. But both candidates say they oppose a government takeover of health care.
Burns argues for changes in insurance law, but Mudd goes further, telling small-business people they should support universal health care because without it, “you are paying for everyone who is uninsured or underinsured.”
The Mudd campaign’s television advertisements have lacked bite. Mudd said Tuesday that his basic problem has been a lack of money to get them on the air. His campaign had collected $810,102 by Oct. 19, the last pre-election filing date. Burns raised more than $3.2 million during six years, and he voted to continue a filibuster on campaign-spending legislation, too.
But there is much more to the Burns success than money. He has campaigned hard, touring the state by bus and plane. Last Saturday he and some of his supporters made an all-day bus trip from Lewistown to Billings. He detoured to visit “a dilapidated old cowboy,” made brief speeches and greeted old friends from his days as a farm broadcaster, livestock auctioneer and high school football referee.
His highly organized campaign is personal, with more than 12,000 people (1.5 percent of the state’s population) who know him, volunteering to make calls and get out the vote.
Burns’ speeches stress his opposition to taxes, gun control and a rampant environmentalism that he says puts man only equal to the “Australian kangaroo rat.” He complains that Washington is ignorant about farming, and he rails against the decline of standards generally: “There is kids setting in classrooms with ball caps on.”
His continual presence and his manner, even his sometimes embarrassing bluntness and semi-coarse wisecracks, may explain why the lobbying issues has not crippled him. While the Mudd television ads ask, “Who is he really working for?” Burns in person just does not seem to have forgotten Montana for seductive lobbyists.
But the money helps. It pays for a field staff, for direct mail that says Mudd wants to cut Social Security and for television ads, including one showing champagne glasses clinking as Burns says that special interests press for tax increases.
“I’ve never voted for a tax increase, not one. Forty times they tried to get me to raise your taxes — Democrats tried it, Republicans tried it, and every time I voted no.”
Burns does have 40 anti-tax votes on his ledger, although some sought to carve out tax breaks for farmers and other interests. But he also voted in 1990 for a $3 tax on airline tickets and in 1993 for $15 billion in new user fees on items such as mining and patents.
— written by Adam Clymer, New York Times News Service, published in the Nov. 2, 1994 edition of The Oregonian