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Jon v. Con

Washington is watching Montana’s senate race



If what we’ve seen so far is any indication, Montanans are in for a horrific political season of vicious attack ads in the battle for Conrad Burns’ senate seat. But if the first hogs out of the chute are indicative of what’s to come, the national politicos and their ad agencies had best figure out what’s going on in Montana before they start telling us who represents what.

Just after Tester’s upset victory in the primary, the National Republican Senatorial Committee leaped into the fray with a nasty ad making fun of Jon Tester’s flattop haircut. In the ad, an actor portraying Tester’s barber says Tester is a liberal using his haircut to fool Montana voters: “Conservative haircut. Liberal values.” The actor-barber then smears Tester by saying “didn’t leave a tip, either.”

Problem is, these D.C. Republican operatives obviously have no clue whatsoever as to what Montana politicians look like, talk like—or how they treat their fellow Montanans.

Perhaps they should have taken the time to obtain some copies of the Copper Book, which is published every legislative session and contains a picture and history of all the legislators. I have about 22 years worth of Copper Books and took the time to go through them before writing this column. “Well,” I asked myself, “are these guys right? Can you identify someone’s political affiliation just by looking at his haircut? Is a flattop somehow the property of the Republican Party?”

The answer, in a word, is no. Looking through all those hundreds of legislators, there were maybe half a dozen who actually had flattop haircuts—and most of them were Democrats. There were bald guys, bad comb-overs, beards, mustaches and long hair, but as far as I can tell, some of the most liberal legislators of the last two decades look like some of the most conservative, and some of the most conservative legislators looked like wild-eyed liberals.

Because the national Repubs didn’t do their homework, “backfire” best describes the reaction to their ad so far. For one thing, it really ticked off Tester’s barber, who is featured in a new TV ad refuting the Republican slur.

In a Great Falls Tribune article, Bill Graves, who has been a barber for 40 of his 70 years, said: “I was fairly mad when that ad came out. The guy in the ad isn’t a barber. He’s an actor and he’s never touched Jon Tester’s hair.” Graves, who has been cutting Tester’s hair for the last 15 years, went right after the phony Repub rap on Tester’s tipping, too. Tester does tip, Graves told the Tribune’s reporter. “He’s very generous.”

Given the latest polls showing Tester beating Burns, perhaps it should come as no surprise that national Republicans would stoop to such tactics so early in the race. After all, considering what we’ve seen in the way of dirty tricks and dubious election-day manipulations from the Republicans in recent years, inaccurately trashing Tester for not tipping his barber seems like small potatoes—and it would be in D.C.

But not in Montana.

If one lesson came shining through in Tester’s win over a primary opponent who outspent him 2 to 1, it’s that Montanans talk to each other—they don’t just watch TV and do whatever the political ads say. The depth and breadth of the grassroots movement that brought Tester to his stunning victory was not a result of some clever campaign tactic or simply burying voters beneath an avalanche of advertising. No, it grew truly from the roots as Montanans searched for the best candidate to beat Burns in November.

Most Montanans who meet Jon Tester like him, in no small part because he’s that kind of person: big, affable and articulate. They also inherently trust him. And they take umbrage at seeing him unjustly accused by national Republican political hacks of trying to deceive voters by looking conservative or of being a cheap tipper. Thanks to the fact that Tester really is a Montanan and is well-known by his fellow Montanans, there’s no question that Burns’ D.C. attack dogs got their tails righteously nipped in round one of Jon v. Con.

That said, the Tester campaign will have some wrestling of its own to do when the Demo nationals show up. Thanks to a cascading series of events, Burns is in real trouble and the Dems know they have the rare chance to pick off an incumbent Republcan senator—and perhaps tip the balance of the Senate in the bargain. First, corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff told the nation he “got everything he wanted from Burns’ committee” while Burns took more money from Abramoff than any other member of Congress. Then Time magazine ranked Burns as one of the nation’s worst senators. And now, an ongoing investigation into what appear to be a number of questionable actions over the possible misuse of funds Burns appropriated for a UM space center leave the senator wallowing helplessly in a tar pit while the Dems close in for the kill.

Tester’s challenge will be to keep the Demo nationals in line. It looks like Tester would beat Burns if the election were held today, but that could change if the national party follows the example of its Republican counterpart and starts running slimeball ads that turn Montanans away from, not toward, their candidate. It may not be easy, given the overblown self-image of D.C. political operatives and their even more facile leap to pigeonholing Montanans as politically naive hicks.

Obviously, Conrad Burns is unable to keep his D.C. operatives out of the slime. If Tester can keep his campaign Montanan—and let his grassroots do the talking—this race may well be over long before the ballots are cast.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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