WaPo on Abramoff’s influence in the Montana Senate race

Blaine Harden has a new story about the Montana Senate race in the Washington Post that’s…well…a little bit off. Ostensibly it’s about how the Abramoff scandal and Conrad Burns’ involvement in it isn’t the key issue for the 2006 Senate race. And I agree with that.

But after that, it’s pretty much down hill.

First, the Abramoff comments:

For all the influence-peddling that has been exposed in the run-up to the midterm election, corruption on Capitol Hill has not become a decisive issue — here or in much of the country. The Abramoff scandal, having ended the careers of a few lawmakers and stained the reputations of several others, can certainly rile up ardent Democrats, as the debate here demonstrated. But it is not making fundamental changes in the nation’s partisan landscape, especially in races, as with Burns in Montana, in which candidates are facing only unsavory stories rather than indictments or guilty pleas.

In an interview, the senator said his polling shows that most voters regard the “Abramoff deal” as merely a political liability and not a damning verdict on his character. Several pollsters and observers of politics in this state agreed with that assessment. The controversy is almost certainly the main reason Burns is in a competitive race this year, but by no means is it a guaranteed career-ender.

I’d have to agree with this assessment. There was also the feeling heading into the general election that Montanans had almost heard too much about the Abramoff scandal and that if Tester ran his campaign based on Burns’ ethics, the tactic would backfire.

Tester has not run his campaign on Abramoff. Instead, Tester’s made his campaign broader, on character, on Montana values, which contrasts sharply with Conrad Burns’ intensely negative and increasingly hysterical campaign. Tester’s current lead is built on the Democratic candidate’s handshake.

But where Harden goes awry is in measuring Burns’ chances by the state’s economy, and Burns’ ability to bring pork back to Montana:

The senator’s shield against Abramoff and his own rhetorical blunders may well be the state’s extraordinarily strong economy. As growth slows in much of the country, Montana is bulling ahead, on track for its fourth consecutive year of 4 percent growth. Consumer sentiment in the state is at an all-time high, and the annual rise in per-capita income — measured last year at 6.3 percent — ranks third in the country. At 3.8 percent, the unemployment rate is about a percentage point below the national average.


Burns argues that the federal money he has sent Montana’s way over the past 18 years helped ignite the boom — and his argument resonates. It “matters a lot” for a state with just 935,000 residents, said Craig Wilson, a political science professor at Montana State University in Billings.

“Burns has been extraordinary in his ability to bring money to poor little old Montana,” said Tom Britz, a consultant to the credit card industry who lives in the booming northwest Montana town of Whitefish. “When it is time to vote, the many people who have been touched by that money know where their bread is buttered.”

Note who Harden quotes. A credit card consultant living in Whitefish, the Beverley Hills of Montana.

Like most places in the US, economists are telling us that we’re doing very well, economically, while none of the economic benefits seem to affecting…well…any people. You can throw all these numbers at me, but I guarantee if you walk out the door anywhere in Montana and ask how secure they feel, whether their buying power is stronger, I guarantee you’ll get negative responses. The economy may be doing “better,” jobs may be up, growth up, but so are the cost of housing and health insurance and education. The future is unsettled.

Except for maybe Whitefish credit card consultants.

Which is odd, because Harden pretty much described the unsettled nature of Montana society in an August 4 article, “Driving Across Montana, From Old West to New”:

Yet, as a morning in Malta, in the plains of northeast Montana, and an evening in Bozeman, in the mountainous southwest, clearly show, this iconic Western place has been reformulated: cut into separate and unequal parts, cleaved along a fault line of wealth and bankruptcy, growth and decline, ebullient newcomers and aging descendants of the homesteaders.

Montana is at a cross-roads, torn between out-of-state developers and the Big Sky tradition. This is hardly a settled landscape. And Burns’ ability to appropriate – or what’s left of this ability – for the state is inexorably intertwined with his marriage to big business. Every boast concerning an appropriation reminds a listener of how Boss Hogg wrung it from Congress. The Abramoff scandal is important for that reason: it reminds voters where Burns’ loyalties lie.

Jon does the rest.


  1. I reiterate what I posted at Kos:

    Montanans have paid better attention than most give them credit for. We aren’t happy about the Abramoff connections at all. In fact, in this state, the one’s most promoting the idea that those connections don’t matter are the GOoPers. They keep bringing it up … and helping us.

    The issue has traction.

  2. Larry Kralj, Environmental Rangers!

    Schweitzer nearly thumped Cornpone’s ass BEFORE Abramoff! What does THAT tell you? Well, it says that Cornbread is very vulnerable, and the Jack A. and a daily gaffe from the moron himself just might be enough to finish off the senile, racist ingnoranus! I don’t think a credit card consultant from Whitefish has probably lived long enough in Montana to have his finger on the pulse of Montana. Sorry.

  3. Jen. That Jen

    I agree with Wulfgar, but the newspaper editor’s at any Lee outlet are loving this story (asshats).

    The MT Standard ran an op-ed yesterday from the Butte delegation slamming Burns and allegations of “delivery of pork”, and then today the article references above was FRONT PAGE NEWS!

  4. Jen. That Jen

    sorry – itchy clicky finger.

  5. What do we know about Blaine Harden? Is he a stringer (ie living out here) or just doing Western analysis? I know that I found the piece he did in early August very surface, as if he had been here for three days and decided he totally understood Montana but…well…didn’t. This piece confirms it.

  6. I don’t know anything about Harden, tho’ I believe she’s a she. Other than that…noting, zilch. You’re right, the second article was pretty superficial. It’s funny when big-city reporters “explain” Montana to their readership, isn’t it?

  7. “Blaine? (Her) name is Blaine? That’s not a name, that’s a major appliance!”

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  1. 1 Boat wreck politics « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] So when should McDonald attack, if he’s going to at all? A year after the fact? When everyone has forgotten about the incident? I don’t know why Montana journalists always go to Wilson for comments. The guy bugs me (more on Wilson here and here). […]

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