HELENA — After dropping a big lead and coming in a distant second for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, John Morrison will have his work cut out for him if he hopes to piece together a political future, observers say. But it hardly spells the end of his political career.
"We can be very hard on politicians, but we can also be very forgiving," said Craig Wilson, a Montana State University-Billings political scientist who has watched Montana politics for four decades.
Morrison, widely considered the early favorite to win the Democratic nomination and take on Republican incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns, lost to state Senate president and Big Sandy farmer Jon Tester by a nearly 2-to-1 margin Tuesday.
The loss topped what has been a rough year for Morrison. His father, former Supreme Court Justice Frank Morrison Jr., died in January. In April, newspapers reported an affair the younger Morrison had with a woman whose fiance was later the subject of an investigation conducted by Morrison's office.
But Morrison, 44, could come back from it all, political observers like Wilson say.
Morrison is young for politics, has solid name recognition and a number of politicians have bounced back from bad losses or even a little bit of scandal, Wilson said.
The Morrison campaign was geared up for a contest with Burns — then news hit about how his office handled the investigation of the fiance of a woman with whom Morrison once had an affair. That started a tailspin from which the campaign couldn't recover. The revelation was particularly harmful to a campaign that had been attacking perceived ethical lapses by Burns.
Still, most predicted a tight battle with Tester. Morrison put on a brave face for a brief appearance before supporters to concede Tuesday night, but has been mostly absent since the election. He declined requests for interviews for this story.
Morrison will remain the state auditor through 2008, when he has to leave the office because of term limits. An office that could interest the one-time trial lawyer at that time could include the attorney general's post, which Mike McGrath will be vacating because of term limits. Or, some suggest, he could make a run at the state's lone U.S. House seat held by Republican Denny Rehberg.
"I think others have overcome adversity," said Bob Ream, the former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a Tester supporter. "Part of politics is timing, being in the right place and the right time. He is a good man and a sharp guy. I think he was overwhelmed by the grass-roots effort that Tester had."
But the hit of a loss in the primary, where so many Democrats lined up behind Tester, can be overcome, he added.
"I think he would have to work hard to build his base of support among Democrats, but I think he could do that," Ream said.
The director of the state Republican Party thinks the defeat will be too much for Morrison.
"I think this is the end for him," said GOP Executive Director Chuck Denowh. "He got beat pretty soundly and I think the reason he got beat would come to haunt him in a future campaign.
"I don't think he would come back, I think he is smarter than that."
Morrison comes from a political family. His father ran for governor twice after leaving the Montana Supreme Court. His grandfather served as the Democratic governor of Nebraska from 1961 to 1967.
"I'm sure that throughout much of his life (Morrison) had been thinking about politics and a political career," Wilson said.
He said any political comeback by Morrison would have to address the controversy stirred up by revelations of the former affair.
"Any comeback would probably have to start with a little better explanation, or kind of an apology, in terms of what happened, of the personal affair and the ethics," Wilson said. "You make a mistake, you fully admit it and people usually understand."