Montanans circle the wagons

CASCADE, Mont. — The snows are melting, spring is in the air and outsiders like myself are beginning to return to the state residents and visitors alike like to call “the last best place.”

CASCADE, Mont. — The snows are melting, spring is in the air and outsiders like myself are beginning to return to the state residents and visitors alike like to call “the last best place.”

Montana attracts a lot of outsiders like me — and this year more interest from political types and journalists than at any time in decades.

The reason is that national Democrats, buoyed by the victory of their gubernatorial candidate two years ago, believe that they may be on the threshold of breaking a virtual GOP lock on states like Montana that could pay national dividends in 2008. Brian Schweitzer had lost to Republican Sen. Conrad Burns in 2000 but came back to win the governorship over a divided GOP two years later in a victory that proved wide and deep.

Schweitzer’s election won him national attention from analysts looking for Democrats who don’t fit the mold. He’s a rancher who says what he means, works with whomever he needs and has managed to remain popular with more than two-thirds of Montana’s voters. He may be more liberal than some think, but one really can’t see him fitting in with the folks who run his party in Washington, and in that sense at least he certainly doesn’t fit the traditional Democratic mold.

At the time of his election, however, I thought many outside the state were mistaking the personal popularity of a quintessential Montanan as something more. In states like Montana where everybody knows everyone else or at least think they do, elections tend to turn on personal rather than partisan considerations. Schweitzer benefited from this in 2002, and this fall the man who defeated him for the Senate two years earlier may well confound outsiders.

Burns had a tough winter, but it appears that he’s survived it. News reports linking him to Jack Abramoff and Democratic charges that the contributions he got from the now discredited lobbyist threw him off his game, encouraged his opponents inside and outside the state to believe that they could beat him in November and turned what some had thought might be an easy reelection into one that could go either way.

But like Schweitzer, Burns is too well-known to be so easily dismissed, and like Schweitzer, he’s a character in a state where individuality counts. When I was out there a few months ago, Burns supporters were nervous, but I didn’t talk to anyone who thought he’s crooked. One told me he ought to be more careful about the folks he hires, and more than one believed it was possible that he’d been used by Abramoff, but no one bought into the charge that the Conrad Burns they know was on the take.

This time, while I was there, both Time and Newsweek ran articles repeating what a reporter for the Great Falls paper called the Democrats’ “all Jack Abramoff, all the time mantra,” which added nothing to what’s already known about Abramoff and his dealing with Burns.

Montana isn’t as parochial as some states one could name, in that you can be accepted as a native without having been born there, but most Montanans react badly to attacks from the outside. Burns, after all, is one of theirs. He’s been everywhere over the years, knows just about everyone and runs a pretty good operation. He votes the way most of his constituents want their man in Washington to vote and brings back enough to let them know he’s fighting for their interests.

If all or at least most politics is as local as Tip O’Neill used to remind us, Howard Dean and his friends are going to have a tough time unseating Burns. He knows everybody, and as the snow melts he is telling his neighbors that his race this year is really about them and their values, about whether attacks by outsiders on those values and on the man they elected to represent them in Washington are going to convince them to abandon him. Current polls show Burns shoring up support many thought was eroding for reasons outsiders have a difficult time grasping.

But as the campaign develops, the folks from and the national Democratic Party, like the writers from Time and Newsweek, may discover that their hostility toward him is the fuel he’ll use to win another term in the Senate.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (