HELENA — It took more than 17 hours after the polls closed Tuesday night, but Democrat Steve Bullock was finally declared the winner of the Montana governor’s race by early Wednesday afternoon.
Bullock, the state’s attorney general, will be sworn in as Montana’s 24th governor in January, succeeding fellow Democrat Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Unofficial returns showed Bullock leading from the start Tuesday night and amassing a sizable lead, only to see his margin over Republican Rick Hill shrink during the night. Libertarian Ron Vandevender was also in the race.
With 94 percent of the precincts counted, the latest results, according to the Associated Press, showed Bullock with 225,418 votes, for 49 percent; Hill with 217,058 votes, for 47 percent; and Vandevender with 17,008 votes, for 4 percent.
In a hotel meeting room packed with cheering supporters, Bullock thanked his family, running mate John Walsh and his family, his campaign staff, his attorney general’s office staff and volunteers across the state.
“Thank you for what was a long ride, definitely a long night for many of us,” Bullock said. “It’s been a long process, but being elected as your next governor is an incredible, incredible honor.”
Bullock said he had spoken with Hill earlier Wednesday, and he elaborated on it later with reporters.
“I had a nice conversation with Congressman Hill, and he wished me the best as governor, and said he thought I’d do a good job and offered his help,” Bullock said. “I said I certainly appreciate that. We talked a little bit about both of our families. I told him I thought he ran a great campaign.”
Hill issued a statement thanking his supporters, congratulating Bullock and wishing Walsh the best. He called on leaders of both political parties to set their differences aside to find solutions that will benefit Montanans.
While the outcome of the election was not what he and running mate Jon Sonju desired, Hill said, “I am proud that we ran a positive campaign, focused more on the issues and less on politics.”
Bullock told the crowd he ran for governor because he believes in Montana’s future — everyone’s future, not Democrats’ future or Republicans’ future.
Bullock said he ran a positive campaign about creating jobs, investing in schools, promoting access to public lands and streams, protecting seniors, advocating for working families and women’s health care, standing up for veterans and creating a bright future for kids.
The governor-elect said there are a number of transition tasks, such as key appointments, facing him, but Bullock said he his priority Wednesday was to celebrate.
“I have no doubt that we’ll be able to put together a great cabinet, a great group of people, but today we’re enjoying and celebrating with family,” Bullock told reporters.
Bullock also must present a proposed budget to the Legislature. It’s usually a modification of the budget that the outgoing governor prepares.
The plan, Bullock said, is to seek and meet with legislative leaders and lawmakers from across the state from both parties to discuss pending issues. Republicans again will control the House and Senate in 2013.
The relationship between Schweitzer and the Republican-controlled Legislature was tumultuous, with the governor vetoing a record 79 bills.
Bullock, in contrast, emphasized the importance of working together.
“As attorney general, even in real partisan times, I was so happy we were able to make substantial changes dealing with drunk drivers and prescription drug abuse,” he said. “We did that by bringing people together. I hope that to be a hallmark of our efforts this next legislative session as well.”
Bullock also told how he had fought the influence of out-of-state money in Montana elections as attorney general and in the political campaign.
Asked about the disputed $500,000 Hill’s campaign accepted from the Montana Republican Party last month and which a Helena district judge has barred Hill from spending, Bullock said he didn’t know if it was a turning point in his campaign.
Montanans also adopted, by about a 3-1 margin, Initiative 166, a nonbinding policy statement for public officials that says corporations aren’t people and money isn’t free speech.
“Whether it’s a mandate for me, we all need to recognize I think that our sort of democracy, representative government, is at stake here, and we need to do what we can to make sure our elections are decided by Montanans,” Bullock said.