Last modified on July 30, 2021, at 16:43

Conrad Burns

Conrad Ray Burns

In office
January 3, 1989 – January 3, 2007
Preceded by John Melcher
Succeeded by Jon Tester

Born January 25, 1935
Gallatin, Daviess County
Died April 28, 2016 (aged 81)
Billings, Montana
Resting place Arlington National Cemetery (Virginia)
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Phyllis J. Kuhlmann Burns (married 1967-2016, his death)
Children Katherine Frances “Kate” Burns (deceased)

Keely Burns Godwin
Garrett R. Burns
Russell and Mary Frances Knight Burns

Alma mater Gallatin (Missouri) High School

University of Missouri (Columbia, Missouri)

Military Service
Service/branch United States Marine Corps

(Small-arms instructor)

Years of service 1955–1957

Conrad Ray Burns (January 25, 1935 – April 28, 2016) was a three-term Republican United States Senator for his adopted state of Montana. he was unseated for a fourth term in 2006 by the Democrat Jon Tester, who still holds the sea.

Burns was only the second Republican, after Zales Ecton, who served a single term from 1947 to 1953, to represent Montana in the U.S. Senate since adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Burns is still his state's longest-serving Republican senator. Ecton's victory came with the Republican congressional sweep in the 1946 elections; he was defeated in 1952 by later Democratic Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, even though Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon carried Montana in the national election over Adlai Stevenson and John Sparkman.


Burns was born on a farm near Gallatin in Daviess County in northwestern Missouri, to Russell Burns (1906-1992) and the former Mary Frances Knight (1909-1997), who are interred at Hillcrest Cemetery in Gallatin.[1] In 1952, he graduated from Gallatin High School and then for two years he studied agriculture at the University of Missouri in Columba, Missouri. He left the university and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, in which he was based from 1955 to 1957 in Japan and South Korea as a small-arms instructor.

From 1957 to 1962, he was employed by Trans World and Ozark air lines. In 1962, he became the field representative for Hereford World magazine, based in the state's largest city, Billings in Yellowstone County. In 1967, he wed the former Phyllis Jean Kuhlmann (born 1943), and they had three children, Katherine Frances “Kate” Burns (1969-1985), Keely Burns Godwin, and Garrett R. Burns.[2]

In 1968, Burns became a cattle auctioneer[1]for the Billings Livestock Commission and was the first manager of the Northern International Livestock Exposition. He also began reporting on agricultural market news, started a radio broadcast, and later worked as a farm reporter.

In 1975, Burns founded the Northern Broadcasting System with four radio stations, later with thirty-one radio stations and six television outlets. Burns sold the company in 1986 upon this election as a Yellowstone County commissioner. He soon left the commission in 1988 upon his election to the U.S. Senate.[1]

Political life

Despite his lack of political experience, Republicans recruited him to challenge Democratic Senator John Melcher (1924-2018), a popular veterinarian from Forsth in Rosebud County in southern Montana. Burns described Melcher as "a liberal who is soft on drugs, soft on defense, and very high on social programs."[3] Burns questioned Melcher's long service in both houses of Congress and himself pledged if elected to serve only two terms. Nevertheless, Burns served three terms and but was narrowly defeated in his bid for a fourth term.

Contributing to Melcher's defeat was public opposition to policies in Yellowstone National Park regarding naturally occurring fires. President Ronald Reagan pocket vetoed Melcher's legislation which would have forbidden logging and mineral development in 1.4 million acres of Montana forest lands. Burns defeated Melcher in a close race, 51-48 percent. He was helped by the success in Montana of Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, who carried Montana in his defeat of the Democrat Michael Dukakis.

Senator Burns spearheaded efforts to increase the production of domestic energy and the expansion of the development of natural resources. He served on the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Subcommittee on the Interior. In the Republican year of 1994, Melcher lost his bid for a comeback in the Democratic primary to John O. "Jack" Mudd (born 1943), the former dean of the University of Montana Law School at Missoula. In the general election, Burns prevailed, 218,542 votes (62.4 percent) to Mudd's 131,845 (37.6 percent). Mudd carried only three counties. Mudd's campaign was described by the pundit Michael Barone as "underfunded and puzzling".[4]

Burns barely won his third term in 2000, when George W. Bush carried Montana in the national race against Al Gore. His re-negging on term limits may have kept down his margin.[5] He defeated the Democrat Brian Schweitzer, a rancher from Whitefish in Flathead County in northwestern Montana, who was subsequently elected governor in 2004. Schweitzer sought to portray himself as "nonpolitical."[4] Schweitzer prganized groups of senior citizens to travel to Canada for less costly prescription drugs. [6] Burns charged that Schweitzer favored "Canadian-style government controls."[6] He claimed that many senior went excessively to the doctor because they needed someone with whom to talk."[6]

Burns also faced trouble regarding deaths from asbestos in Libby in Lincoln County in northwestern Montana. While he initially supported a bill to limit compensation in such cases, he withdrew his support for the bill under public criticism and instead added $11.5 million for the town to an appropriations bill.[7]

Burns spent twice as much money as Schweitzer on the election[7] and defeated him, 208,082 votes (50.6 percent) to 194,430 (47.2 percent). The other 2.2 percent of the ballots cast went to the Reform Party nominee, Gary Lee. Burns still fell more than 7 percentage points below the votes received by George W. Bush.

Because of his narrow win in 2000 and the Democratic turnover of Montana's state government in 2004, polls in 2006 placed Burns as the most vulnerabley Republican senators seeking reelection. His standing was considered a reflection of Burn's ties to the Jack Abramoff Indian lobbying scandal.[8][9]

On June 6, 2006, Burns won the Republican primary with 72 percent of the vote against three other Republican candidates. However, he lost the November general election to Jon Tester, then the Montana State Senate President and an organic farmer from Big Sandy, near Havre. According to some polls, Burns' approval rating had dropped below 40 percent, the lowest of all the senators running for reelection.[10] Those polls were wrong because Burns lost to Tester by only 3,562 votes, 199,845 (49.2) to 196, 283 (48.3 percent). Burns could have prevailed had not Libertarian Party nominee Stan Jones received more than ten thousand votes.

On November 9, 2006, Burns conceded the election to Tester. A week later, in an angry press conference, Burns said that he was "not going to negotiate my problems with the goddamn press... Goodbye! Goodbye! Goodbye!"[11]

Later years

After his Senate defeat, Burns worked in Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist. He died in Billings at the age of eighty-one and was interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Conrad Ray Burns (1935-2016) - Find A Grave Memorial, accessed July 30, 2021.
  2. Sen. Conrad Burns laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. KULR-8 (NBC in Billings) (July 17, 2017). Retrieved on July 30, 2021.
  3. Former Montana Sen. Conrad Burns dies; influenced energy policy. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved on August 23, 2018.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Michael Barone, The Almanac of American Politics, 1996.
  5. George Will, "...Terms Unlimited", The Washington Post, June 24, 1999.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 William Booth, "Monana Rancher Mounts Brawny Challenge; Crusty GOP Incumbent Finds Race Tightening Against an Equally Rough-Hewn Opponent," The Washington Post, October 31, 2000.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Al Kamen, "Town Getting $11 Million in Salve From Burns," The Washington Post, May 12, 2000.
  8. SurveyUSA - 50 State Senate 05/06 Sort By State. (May 23, 2006). Retrieved on April 29, 2016.
  9. Sen. Burns Scrutinized for Earmark Tied to Abramoff. National Public Radio (March 27, 2006). Retrieved on July 30, 2021.
  10. SurveyUSA | America's Neighborhood Pollster. Retrieved on August 23, 2018.
  11. "After Getting Burned at the Polls, a Legendary Temper Burns Even Hotter," cq politics on,. November 15, 2006.