Scandals dog Republicans

Montana senator's Abramoff ties among election concerns for GOP

October 22, 2006|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Reporter

LEWISTOWN, Mont. -- E-mailing underage boys might be the most original sin of this campaign season, but in Big Sky country, folks are talking about the old-fashioned sleaze that Jack Abramoff spread around.

"They've been hammering on me for 18 months," said Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, who got more Abramoff-related money than anyone else in Congress and might well be unseated as a result.

An iron law of modern elections holds that incumbents lose only in the very rarest of circumstances, such as illness or scandal. This year, scandal is anything but rare.

The scandal factor "is big," said political scientist Barry C. Burden of the University of Wisconsin, and it could cost Republicans control of one or both houses of Congress. "The Republicans have a very slim majority. It doesn't take very many seats or very much of an effect for these things to matter."

Voter anger over the congressional page sex scandal and the Republican leadership's handling of it could be enough to tip a number of close races to the Democrats. A seemingly endless stream of bad news for Republicans - in Pennsylvania last week, the FBI raided the office of a Republican congressman's daughter - has analysts predicting that a fed-up electorate is ready to put Democrats back in charge.

This month, Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio became the first member of Congress to plead guilty in connection with his dealings with lobbyist Abramoff, who is cooperating with authorities after pleading guilty to charges of conspiring to corrupt public officials. House Republican Leader Tom DeLay of Texas resigned last spring after a former aide who had gone to work for Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy and corruption charges. Their seats are considered prime prospects for Democratic pickups.

Democratic candidates, too, face allegations of corruption, including in New Jersey, where Sen. Robert Menendez is in a tight race. But with Republicans in charge of Congress, and the Abramoff and Foley scandals focused mainly on Republicans, the GOP is likely to be hurt more, analysts have said.

Events in other states have helped keep the ethics issue alive in the Montana Senate contest, one of the hottest in the country, which appears to be breaking the Democrats' way. Democratic challenger Jon Tester, in an interview, called the Abramoff scandal "the underpinning of the race."

According to news reports, Burns is under investigation by the Justice Department. The senator hired a criminal defense attorney in Washington last spring but has denied any wrongdoing.

The Republican incumbent has tried to shift the focus to his Senate seniority, which, he says, has generated $2 billion in federal aid for his state. On a recent, snowy morning in Great Falls, the senator hopscotched from an event with White House drug czar John P. Walters, who lavishly praised Burns' work in fighting methamphetamine use, to a dedication ceremony for a new Customs and Border Protection air wing that will guard the Canada border, to an Agriculture Department grant ceremony.

But Burns has hurt himself with a series of gaffes, such as lashing out at a crew of Virginia firefighters last summer at the Billings airport. The senator told them they had done a "piss poor" job on a major fire in southern Montana and later said they "didn't do a ... damned thing" and had just sat around. He was forced to issue an apology.

Last week, Burns drew derisive laughter during a televised campaign debate when he announced that President Bush has a secret strategy to end the Iraq war. "I think he's got one, but he's not going to tell everyone in the whole world," the Republican said.

Democrats, meanwhile, are clogging TV and radio with attack ads that accuse the senator of doing Abramoff's bidding, rather than his home state's. Turning around Burns' claim that he "delivers for Montana," the ads, which feature Abramoff's dark visage in a fedora hat, charge Burns with "delivering for Jack Abramoff. Not us."

Burns got more money than any other member of Congress from Abramoff and his associates - $150,000 - as part of what prosecutors called an influence-peddling scheme by the lobbyist. He has since returned the money.

Abramoff told Vanity Fair magazine this year, "Every appropriation we wanted, we got" from Burns' committee. "I mean, it's a little difficult for him to run from that record."

In an interview, Burns called the Abramoff allegations "an old issue" and said he's counting on the vaunted Republican Party turnout operation to help win him another term. Calling it "a tough year" for Republicans, he said the biggest problem he faces is "how people view Washington, D.C., right now, you know?"

In Lewistown, a thriving community of 6,000 in the rugged ranch country of central Montana, random interviews suggest that the senator's support is cracking in one of the most conservative parts of the state.

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