8:45 a.m.: The Associated Press has projected that Montana Sen. Jon Tester wins re-election.
7:30 a.m.: GREAT FALLS – As dawn broke early Wednesday morning, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester still held a solid lead over Republican challenger Rep. Denny Rehberg in Montana’s U.S. Senate contest – but with thousands of votes still uncounted from Billings and other major cities, the race has yet to be called.
With nearly 90 percent of the statewide vote tallied Wednesday, Tester stood with about 49 percent, Rehberg was at 45 percent and Libertarian Dan Cox, who could be the deciding factor, held steady at more than 6 percent.
Tester led Rehberg by about 17,000 votes – and anywhere from 70,000 to 80,000 votes may still be uncounted. At 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, Tester had 209,905 votes to 192,725 for Rehberg and 27,787 for Cox.
As many as 35,000 votes were yet to be tallied in Yellowstone County, the home base for Rehberg, and votes also were still out in Missoula, Flathead, Lewis and Clark, Silver Bow and Ravalli counties. Two counties with substantial numbers of Indian voters also are still to be counted.
Tester, speaking to reporters shortly after midnight at a Great Falls hotel, said he felt good about his chances, but that the race clearly wasn’t over.
“We knew this was going to be a long night,” he said. “We’ve just got to make sure that every vote is counted and that every vote counts.”
More than 100 supporters cheered and waved signs as Tester was interviewed by TV reporters.
Rehberg, who was at a Billings hotel and convention center, had not made a public appearance at his gathering by early Wednesday morning.
Tester, a Democrat seeking re-election to a second term, and Rehberg, a six-term congressman for Montana, have waged the most expensive campaign in Montana history, spending $20 million between themselves and weathering an avalanche of additional spending by outside groups on behalf of both candidates.
Outside groups have spent an estimated $30 million or more, as the race was thought to be a possible tipping point in party control for the U.S. Senate.
Yet as results from other U.S. Senate races from across the country came in Tuesday night, it became clear that Democrats will maintain their majority in the U.S. Senate, regardless of the outcome of the Montana race.
When asked about the makeup of the Senate, Tester said he hoped that people could put partisan differences aside and work on problems facing the natioin.
“In the end, we have to start working together,” he said. “If we don’t do that, it doesn’t matter who controls the Senate.”
Tester spent part of Tuesday on his farm near Big Sandy and then came to the Holiday Inn in Great Falls, where he hung out in his hotel room with his wife, Sharla, their children and grandchildren and Tester’s two brothers.
Shortly after 9 p.m., Tester came down to a ballroom of raucous supporters, who moments later cheered the national TV network announcements projecting that President Barack Obama would win re-election. Tester remained among the ballroom crowd well past midnight, chatting with supporters, signing campaign signs and checking his smart phone.
Rehberg worked Monday, mostly on get -out-the-vote efforts, but spent Tuesday relaxing with his family, campaign spokesman Chris Bond said.