HELENA -- John Morrison and Jon Tester are running neck-and-neck in their race for the June 7 Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Conrad Burns, a Lee Newspapers poll taken last week shows.
Morrison received 42 percent to Tester's 41 percent of the likely Democratic primary voters, with 14 percent undecided, according to the poll that was taken May 22-24.
Trailing the Democratic frontrunners were former Rep. Paul Richards of Boulder with 2 percent and Kenneth Marcure, a Missoula man who has lived in Japan for most of the past 30 years, with 1 percent. Robert Candee of Richey didn't register any support in the poll.
Morrison, the state auditor from Helena, and Tester, a farmer and state Senate president from Big Sandy, are deemed to be running "about even,'' according to Associated Press poll standards. The reason is Morrison's 1-percentage point lead fell within the primary poll's margin of error of plus or minus 6 percentage points.
"The thing that strikes me is that Morrison is still better known than Tester, but Tester has a higher favorable rating with Democrats,'' said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the poll. "Tester may have a little more upward mobility. He's pretty well-positioned for the primary. I think it's a close race, but if Tester won, it wouldn't surprise me.''
On the Republican side, Burns amassed a wide lead of 66 to 18 percent over state Senate Minority Leader Bob Keenan of Bigfork, with 13 percent undecided. Bob Kelleher of Butte had 3 percent, while Daniel Lloyd Neste Huffman of Great Falls didn't register any support.
Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. of Washington, D.C interviewed 625 registered voters who said they vote regularly in Montana elections for the general-election portion of the poll, It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Mason-Dixon did an over-sampling of 300 likely Democratic primary voters and 300 likely Republican primary voters just for the primary election questions. That portion of the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 6 percentage points.
In November general election match-ups, Morrison leads Burns slightly by a 48 to 41 percent, with 11 percent undecided. The general election poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
Another general match-up shows Tester with 45 percent to Burns' 42 percent, and 13 percent undecided. Because Tester's 3-percentage point lead falls within the margin of error, the two candidates are deemed to be running about even.
"Burns is trailing both Tester and Morrison so that's a real sign of trouble,'' Coker said. "In the general election, when an incumbent is under 50 percent in the horserace, they're in trouble, and when they're trailing, they're in big trouble.''
The poll also matched up Keenan, who entered the race shortly before the filing deadline, against the three main Democrats. Morrison leads Keenan 43 to 31 percent, with 26 percent undecided. Tester and Keenan are within the margin of error, with Tester at 40 percent, Keenan at 37 percent and 23 percent undecided. Keenan leads Richards, 38 to 25 percent, with 37 percent undecided.
In another match-up, Burns is slightly ahead of Richards, 44 to 37 percent, with 19 percent undecided.
The poll asked voters if negative events involving Burns and Morrison affected their votes.
The Burns question read: "U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns has received campaign contributions from lobbyist Jack Abramoff, his associates and his clients more than any member of Congress. Critics say Burns promoted Abramoff's agenda, while Burns said he did nothing wrong. Does this controversy make you less likely to vote for Burns, or does it have no real effect on your voting decision?''
Forty-eight percent of voters said the Abramoff issue made them less likely to vote for Burns, while 44 percent it had no effect and 8 percent were unsure.
"The numbers on the Abramoff question tell you exactly why Conrad Burns is in trouble,'' pollster Coker said.
The Morrison question read: "Before he was elected state auditor, John Morrison had an extramarital affair with a woman who later married a man whom Morrison investigated for securities fraud. Critics say the man received special treatment because of Morrison's past relationship with his wife, while Morrison's defenders say the case was handled properly. Does this controversy make you less likely to vote for Morrison or does it have no real effect on your voting decision?''
Sixty-six percent of voters said the Morrison controversy would have no effect on their voting decision, while 29 percent said they were less likely to vote for Morrison and 5 percent were undecided.
"The Morrison issue didn't seem to cut quite as hard, but it's at about 30 percent,'' Coker said. "It's probably scared some Democrats too, They see an opportunity to beat Conrad Burns, and they're worried about Morrison's skeleton in the closet.''
Tester has said he's the only Democrat who can go toe-to-toe with Burns on the ethics issue.
The poll asked general election voters if they had a favorable or unfavorable reaction to the names of the Senate candidates.
Burns had 35 percent favorable name identification, 41 percent unfavorable, 23 percent neutral and 1 percent didn't recognize him.
Here are the ratings for the other major Senate candidates:
- Morrison: 33 percent favorable; 12 percent unfavorable; 38 percent neutral; and 17 percent didn't recognize him.
- Tester: 28 percent favorable; 10 percent unfavorable; 37 percent neutral; and 25 percent don't recognize him.
- Keenan: 22 percent favorable; 10 percent unfavorable; 45 percent neutral; and 23 percent don't recognize him.
- Richards: 3 percent favorable 2 percent unfavorable; 23 percent neutral; and 72 percent don't recognize him.
In the separate primaries, here are the favorable-unfavorable ratings:
- Burns rated by likely Republican primary voters: 62 percent favorable; 14 percent unfavorable; 23 percent neutral and 1 percent don't recognize him.
- Keenan rated by likely Republican primary voters: 25 percent favorable; 9 percent unfavorable; 47 percent neutral; and 19 percent don't recognize him.
- Tester rated by likely Democratic primary voters: 53 percent favorable; 1 percent unfavorable; 34 percent neutral; and 12 percent don't recognize him.
- Morrison rated by likely Democratic primary voters: 47 percent favorable; 9 percent unfavorable; 37 percent neutral; and 7 percent don't recognize him.
- Richards rated by likely Democratic primary voters: 5 percent favorable; 4 percent unfavorable; 24 percent neutral; and 67 percent don't recognize him.