By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
HELENA – During Montana’s 2006 U.S. Senate election, a dark figure loomed over polling booths statewide: Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Earlier that year, Abramoff pled guilty to tax evasion, bribing public officials and mail fraud. He spent 43 months in prison and must pay $44 million to Indian tribes he defrauded.
To the dismay of Republicans nationwide, the lobbyist enjoyed a cozy relationship with Montana’s junior U.S. senator, three-term GOP incumbent Conrad Burns.
During the 2006 campaign, Montana Democrats blasted Burns for accepting money and gifts from Abramoff and associates. They painted Burns as a Beltway insider looking out only for himself and not average Montanans struggling to make ends meet.
In short, Democrats believed Montana needed an ethical savior, a warrior against the special interests that run the political process.
Jon Tester emerged, delivering a freshness and purity Burns couldn’t.
A Montana State Senate president and farmer from Big Sandy, Tester offered a perfect — if merely symbolic — alternative to Burns, a man muddied in dirty D.C. politics.
The Democratic challenger played the role, repeatedly painting himself as a crusader against special interests. In a folksy television ad filmed in the cab of his pickup truck, Tester swore off lobbyists and their trappings.
“You see, special interests have a tight grip on Washington, leaving us out,” Tester complained in the spot. “It doesn’t have to be that way. Special interests will never hitch a ride in this truck.”
During the five debates between Tester and Burns, the Democrat pounded the Republican for his ties to lobbyists, and especially Abramoff. When moderators handed the mic to Tester, he invariably asked Burns to explain his connection to the disgraced lobbyists.
“The fact is, right now, Americans are baffled by what’s going in Washington, D.C. today,” Tester said in a 2006 debate in Hamilton. He denounced what the country had become — “Where government isn’t a representative democracy, but an auction, where the folks who get representation isn’t based on what’s right, but based on who can right the biggest campaign check.”
Burns denied any wrongdoing and returned $150,000 in campaign money from Abramoff and his allies.
But the damage was done, and Burns lost his seat by about 3,000 votes on election night.
That was then and this is now.
Six years later, as Tester battles Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg for that same Senate seat, the Democrat sits in stark opposition to his former self.
While Tester’s surely no Burns where lobbyists are concerns, the first-term incumbent isn’t the anti-K Street crusader he once was.
According to the OpenSecrets.org, Tester’s the No. 1 Senate candidate recipient of lobbyist cash this election cycle with nearly $452,000.
And he holds the top spot by a longshot. The next in line, Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell, received just less than $407,000 from lobbyists, or about $45,000 less than her Montana counterpart.
Of all candidates for federal office, Tester trails only Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and GOP Speaker of the House John Boehner in lobbyist cash.
Tester even outpaced his own party’s standard-bearer, President Barack Obama, by about $350,000.
Interestingly enough, Rehberg is No. 6 among House members, pulling in $170,000 in lobbyist cash.
Tester has taken a different tack this time around, repeatedly slamming Rehberg for saying during a secretly taped speech to lobbyists earlier this year that theirs is an “honorable profession.” The GOP congressman also said that, like most lawmakers, he relies on lobbyists for information.
But Tester, too, relies on lobbyists for information, and admitted as much in a July 9, 2012, interview on Missoula’s KPAX television. Speaking with greater nuance, he offered this: “Look, lobbyists provide information, and as a lawmaker you’ve got to know that their information is – it’s not a lie, but it’s going to be slanted toward their perspective.”
Spoken like a lobbyist.
Contact: Dustin@Watchdog.org, or @DustinHurst via Twitter.