With many voters on the East Coast heading to bed assured of Democratic victory in the House and a possible takeover in the Senate, political camps in the Wild West settled in for several more hours of returns. With about two-thirds of precincts reporting, incumbent GOP Sen. Conrad Burns had closed to within 10,000 votes of his challenger, Democrat Jon Tester.
In Montana's closely watched Senate race, a crowd of 500 supporters for Tester filled the Heritage Inn of Great Falls with celebratory whoops when CNN showed an early lead of 54 percent to 45 percent. Tester ran a populist campaign against the state's 18-year incumbent Conrad Burns, juxtaposing his rural roots and family values against a GOP image of Washington corruption and special-interest kowtowing.
The preliminary results seemed to confirm months of polling data that had shown Tester ahead. But supporters gathered at Burns' campaign headquarter in Billings, Mont. resisted despair. "We're pretty sure we're going to see Tester jump out to a lead here and then we'll crawl our way back," said campaign spokesman Jason Klindt, explaining that numbers from Eastern Montana may take longer to trickle in. "We were very pleased today with turnout efforts. We feel like we saw some huge turnout numbers in very Republican precincts."
Indeed, due to high turnout, state election officials issued a television report that voters stuck in line when polls closed at 8 p.m. would be allowed to cast ballots.
Tester, a 50-year-old Montana farmer with crew cut hair and a country smile, presents a Democratic agenda in terms locals can appreciate. He speaks of protecting the values of middle class families by improving health care and providing college tuition grants.
Conversely, the Burns campaign bragged of its candidate's Washington connections and assured Montanans that the incumbent would continue his record of bringing earmarks to the state. After several slips of the tongue early in the race, Burns managed a slight late surge in the polls, convincing many Republicans he might retain a seat once considered long gone.
With the House lost early on election night, many eyes turned west to see if Republicans might preserve a Senate majority. Returns from the Southwest states of Arizona and Nevada provided hope, but Montana's favorable GOP poll numbers of late seemed to prove a mirage. "Polls are interesting to see, but we don't really take them for anything more than just that," said Aaron Murphy of Tester's campaign staff. "Today is what really counts."