Republican Kirk Bushman continues to lead Democrat Chuck Tooley for the open Public Service Commission District 2 seat.
As of 8 a.m., Bushman had 31,767 votes to 28,215 for Tooley, a 52.8 to 47 percent margin.
Bushman is a former chairman of the Yellowstone County Republican Party and 2008 primary candidate to unseat U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.
Tooley, a former Billings mayor and City Council member, was the Democrats' pick to reclaim a seat the party hasn't held since 2000.
In the PSC District 3 race, which includes southwest Montana, Republican Roger Koopman lead incumbent John Vincent, a Democrat, 51,615-49,804 in 8 a.m. returns, a 51 to 49 percent margin.
In the third PSC race, for District 4, Democrat Gail Gutsche trailed her opponent Bob Lake, a Republican. He had 46,777 votes to 46,322 for Gutsche in 8 a.m. returns, a 50.1 to 49.7 percent margin.
The Vincent and Koopman race became a bitter contest centered on gun rights, PSC meeting attendance and spousal health.
Koopman is a former state legislator and owner of an employment services company. Vincent, who would start his second term on the PSC, had the backing of some prominent area Republicans.
Tooley and Bushman were running to replace the seat held by Brad Molnar, the two-term Republican PSC Commissioner.
Molnar was prevented by term limit from seeking re-election. But he was still a factor in race, at least for Democrats, who cited several heated disagreements between Molnar and other PSC members during his tenure and promised to restore civility to the commission.
The Public Service Commission regulates electric, telephone, gas and water utilities in Montana. PSC District 2 includes Big Horn, Carbon, Carter, Custer, Fallon, Prairie, Powder River, Rosebud, Treasure and Yellowstone counties. Nearly three-quarters of the district’s voters are in Yellowstone County.
On the campaign trail, Bushman was an ardent supporter of coal, oil and gas development in Montana. Natural resource development isn’t really an issue Public Service Commissioners deal with, but energy development has been crucial economically to the counties in PSC District 2.
And in an indirect way, that preference for carbon-based fuels does come into play at the Public Service Commission when addressing green-energy requirements expected of Montana utilities. NorthWestern Energy is obligated to have some renewable energy in its portfolio, and Bushman has faulted Democrats on the PSC for advocating for green energy as PSC Republicans balked at the cost.