Burns's GOP primary opponent has unusual motive for running

Sen. Joe Lieberman’s primary challenger decided to run because he thinks the Connecticut Democrat is too closely aligned with the Bush administration. Sen. Lincoln Chafee’s Republican primary challenger did so because he thinks the Rhode Islander is too liberal.

Sen. Joe Lieberman’s primary challenger decided to run because he thinks the Connecticut Democrat is too closely aligned with the Bush administration. Sen. Lincoln Chafee’s Republican primary challenger did so because he thinks the Rhode Islander is too liberal.

Sen. Conrad Burns’s challenger, on the other hand, says he did it because he was trying to help out a “friend” — which just happens to be Burns.

Primary challengers generally confront tall odds and mostly provide early referendums on vulnerable incumbents’ base support. Montana state Senate Minority Leader Bob Keenan is harnessing that role as if he’s doing a favor for the third-term senator.

Burns has faced questions about his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and was staring up at his potential Democratic challengers in the polls when Keenan joined the race in March.

“It was as much a service to the Republican Party and to Conrad, that he not just slide through a primary and have the kind of polling numbers that he has,” Keenan said. “It’s hugely important to me that Republicans maintain this U.S. Senate seat, and so that’s what I did — I put my name on the ballot.”

Keenan, a Bigfork, Mont., restaurant owner who cannot run for state Senate reelection because of term limits, said he was working on the Burns reelection campaign when he became disillusioned with what he perceives to be its failure to respond to the Abramoff accusations and disregard for the voters’ discontent.

When Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) didn’t jump into the primary, Keenan said, the responsibility fell to him. He signed up at the 11th hour. Rehberg has endorsed Burns.

Two months after entering the race, Keenan tabs his odds at 50-50 in the June 6 primary. The nature of his campaign — a low-budget swing tour of the state in an RV with his wife and daughter and no other staff — combined with a Keenan-funded GOP poll showing him trailing Burns 62-15, suggests otherwise.

Whit Ayres, whose Ayres, McHenry & Associates firm conducted the poll, said those numbers were based on too small a sample — 254 likely primary voters — to be an accurate preview. There are no other head-to-head polls for the primary match-up.

But Keenan cites the poll, for which he spent a third of his $60,000 war chest, as proof that Montanans are ready to oust Burns; it says 60 percent of the 600 respondents think Burns doesn’t deserve another term. And a Rasmussen poll issued last week shows Keenan fairing slightly better than Burns against both potential Democratic nominees, state Auditor John Morrison and state Senate President Jon Tester. Burns trails both by four points, while Keenan trails Morrison by two and leads Tester by one.

Election experts aren’t giving Keenan as much of a chance as Lieberman challenger Ned Lamont or Chafee challenger Stephen Laffey, but the experts generally agree that Keenan will get what he was seeking: an early test for Burns.

Craig Wilson, an expert in state politics at Montana State University-Billings, said Keenan has indeed helped Burns by giving him a chance to talk about things besides Abramoff and that the matchup has reenergized the Republican base. He estimated that if Keenan got 25 percent of the vote, Burns could be in serious trouble.

Keenan and Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, both place Burns’s danger threshold at around 30 percent.

“If an incumbent like Burns does not get 70 to 75 percent of his party’s base, it’s a sign of very serious trouble,” Sabato said, adding that Burns beat now-Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) by just four points in 2000 and could still be in trouble even if he trounces Keenan.

Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report said that she didn’t yet have a threshold figure for Burns but that, for most incumbents facing a “nuisance primary,” it is 10 or 15 percent.

Sabato said Keenan’s remarks reveal a candidate who knows he’s going to lose. Keenan is perhaps further hindered by the fact that, without indictments or charges, he refuses to accuse Burns of anything Abramoff-related.

Democrats have used a Burns earmark that steered $3 million to an Indian-tribe client of Abramoff’s as campaign fodder.

“My issue is the spending,” Keenan said. “His campaign slogan is ‘Delivering for Montana.’ What we’re talking about is pork, earmarks and the like. What he has delivered upon the next generation is a national debt that’s increased from $2.6 trillion to $8.4 trillion during his service in office. That is a tax increase.”

Burns campaign spokesman Jason Klindt declined to address specific questions about Keenan’s candidacy and said only that Burns “continues to be the only candidate in this race with the resources necessary to combat East Coast liberal and Hollywood money that is flowing into this state.”

Indeed, money is expected to pour by the millions into a state of fewer than 1 million people. Burns has more than $3 million on hand, Morrison has more than $800,000 and Tester has upwards of $250,000.

If Keenan loses, he vows to do whatever he can to get the senator reelected in November.

“If I’m on the short end of this election but I get 35 or 40 percent, then I think the Republican Party and Conrad Burns’s campaign needed this wakeup call,” Keenan said.