Fear of taxes

Robert Novak

11/2/2006 12:01:00 AM - Robert Novak

Just two weeks ago, Republican Sen. Conrad Burns appeared dead in trying for a fourth term. Polls gave his Democratic opponent, State Sen. Jon Tester, a double-digit lead, and that caused party leaders in Washington to write off Burns. But less than a week before the election, Burns has closed to within a few percentage points of Tester.

The reason can be found in this Burns television ad: "Jon Tester isn't being honest when he claims he cut taxes [as president of the state senate]. In fact, Tester raised taxes on more than 16,000 small businesses. . . . Tester supports a $2,000 tax increase on families. Tester's a politician and a taxer who'll say anything to get elected."

Thanks to a late infusion of cash from Washington, Burns is pounding Tester as a taxer too liberal for Montana. This huge, sparsely populated state reflects the 2006 national political chess game. Democrats want a referendum on Burns, while Republicans want a choice between Burns and Tester. Which tactic works will determine the winner here and perhaps control of the Senate.

Montana for the last half century has been red in presidential and blue in senatorial elections. Since 1952, Lyndon Johnson in '64 and Bill Clinton '92 are the only Democrats to carry the state for president. In that same period, only one Republican from Montana was elected to the Senate: Conrad Burns. Regarded here as a potential accident whenever he opens his mouth, he barely survived two of his three elections.

Among Republican senators, only Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania was viewed by the party's high command as more vulnerable than the 71-year-old Burns as this campaign cycle began. Never wildly popular, he was being swept under by the Jack Abramoff scandal. His return early this year of over $150,000 in campaign contributions related to the disgraced Republican lobbyist did not arrest his fall. Republican strategists in Washington thought Burns was gone and wanted him to drop his candidacy.

But Burns had one asset: Jon Tester, the surprise Democratic primary winner. The consensus here is that Tester is the only possible Democrat who could lose to Burns. One businessman I interviewed said he felt Burns ought to go but is voting for him because Tester had a proven anti-business record.

Burns has been pounding the state with the TV ad message that "Tax-hike Tester is too liberal for Montana" and would have voted differently from Montana's other senator, Democrat Max Baucus, on the Bush tax cuts, Medicare prescription drugs, the energy bill, Patriot Acts I and II, the flag amendment and the confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts. In response, Baucus, who likely will need Burns defeated to regain the Senate Finance Committee chairmanship, quickly cut a radio spot avowing his support for Tester.

Burns's problem last week became how to keep trumpeting Montanans' fear of taxes. The national Republican money tap had been closed for a hopeless campaign, as Burns's agents pleaded for an additional $300,000. Burns himself got presidential adviser Karl Rove on his cell phone to beg for more money. By last weekend, Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman said cash was on the way. What's more, Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush were scheduled for Montana visits this week, on Thursday and Friday respectively.

Montana is a state where Bush's presence is not a liability. Tester's TV spots are free of Bush-bashing and stay away from Iraq. Instead, the campaign theme is to connect Burns with "oil company giveaways," "big contracts to Halliburton" and "billions in pork, including bridges to nowhere." On one ad, Tester declares his opposition to such corporate welfare and declares: "This won't get me contributions from Jack Abramoff, but it sure is the right thing to do for Montana."

Wrapping Abramoff around Burns may have been enough to defeat him two weeks ago, but this election now looks too close to call -- thanks to fear of taxes. Tester has lashed back to claim, inaccurately, that Burns advocates a 23 percent national sales tax on top of income taxes. The tax issue, though not emphasized by either party nationwide, is mitigating damage to the Republican Party.