In the state's most expensive legislative race, Democrat Kendall Van Dyk was edging incumbent Republican Roy Brown by just 16 votes in final, unofficial results.
Van Dyk, who skipped a safe run for re-election in his own House district to challenge Brown in the state Senate, was confident last night that his slim lead would stand. Brown, citing past squeakers by Republican candidates, was ready for an automatic recount.
"It's a little surreal," said Van Dyk, who earlier in the night saw a 200-vote lead shrink to one vote. "I feel like we're on the winning edge of this thing and there's clearly going to be a recount. You can't get tighter than one vote."
The final, unofficial total was 3,103 to 3,087 in Van Dyk's favor.
"Well, one vote is an automatic recount," Brown said late last night when the margin was a single vote. "There's nothing we can do. We just sit back and let them do it."
It was the most expensive legislative race in state history, surpassing the previous benchmark as early as June and snowballing to more than $215,000 by mid-October.
Democrats targeted Brown's Senate seat after the incumbent lost his 2008 bid for governor to Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer. In that race, Brown failed to carry voters in his own district, who favored Schweitzer more than two to one. That was enough encouragement for Van Dyk, who passed on re-election to House District 49 to challenge Brown instead.
The fight on the campaign trail was bitter. Van Dyk accused Brown of not being a Montana native. The Republican had moved to Montana from Wyoming as a toddler. The Democrat also called out Brown for not living in the district. Brown's home was excluded from the district by 100 yards when it was redrawn in 2004.
Brown accused Van Dyk of being a radical environmentalist and a promoter of taxes that would kill the petroleum industry. In one TV ad, Brown accused Van Dyk's politics of shuttering several businesses including Granny's Attic, a sprawling antique mall that had closed last month because the owner "just lost her enthusiasm," not because of Van Dyk.
In the north-central Billings, the House district Van Dyk vacated, Democrat Mary McNally was defeating Republican Shauna Kerr 1,372 to 928.
In other local races, Heights challenger Doug Kary was defeating incumbent Democrat Wanda Grinde in House District 48. At press time, Kary, who also ran against Grinde in 2008, lead 1,553 to 1,187. Grinde had represented the district, which included eastern parts of the Heights, since 2005.
Also in the Heights, Republican James Knox was defeating Democrat Pam Ellis in House District 47, which includes western parts of the Heights. Knox replaces incumbent Republican Dennis Himmelberger, who was prevented from re-election by term limits. In early results, Knox led 2,007 to 1,562.
In another race without an incumbent, Republican Jonathan McNiven of Huntley was defeating Democrat Don Reed of Lockwood 1,760 to 1,076 in House District 44. McNiven would replace incumbent Bill Glaser, of Huntley, who opted not to seek re-election. HD 44 includes Huntley, Lockwood and Briarwood.
Incumbent Republican Tom McGillvray fared well in House District 50, defeating challenger Democratic Mary Hernandez 1,840 to 1,448. McGillvray's district represents parts of north Billings and half of Senate District 25, where Brown and Van Dyk were slugging it out.
Democratic incumbent Robyn Driscoll was leading challenger Republican Troy Boucher 949 to 743 in House District 51. Driscoll has represented the district for three terms. HD 51 includes parts of central and southeast Billings.
Democrat Virginia Court was leading Republican Bruce Reierson in House District 52. Court, the owner of Action Travel, was leading 1,260 to 1,107 at press time. HD 52 includes parts of central Billings.
In south-central Billings, incumbent Elsie Arntzen was trouncing former Billings City Councilman Chris "Shoots" Veis 1,460 to 940. Arntzen serves in House District 53.
In south Billings, incumbent Democrat Margie MacDonald defeated Republican challenger Dennis Lenz in House District 54. At press time, MacDonald led 1,090 to 1,055.
Republican Cary Smith easily won re-election to House District 55, which includes parts of west Billings. Smith led Democratic challenger Ken Crouch, 2,587 to 1,195.
In Laurel, Republican incumbent Krayton Kerns was defeating Democratic Challenger Denise DuPont 2,069 to 1,205. The race was shaping up to be Kern's first easy victory in three tries. His 2008 race was decided in a recount. DuPont lost support of her party late in the summer over campaign finance conflicts with her treasurer.
In House District 57, Republican Dan Kennedy led handily, but 18 percent of the votes were going to an unnamed write in candidate, presumably Debra Bonogofsky, who Kennedy defeated in the primary. Bonogofsky filed political practices complaints against Kennedy and a handful of political action committees who targeted her in the spring election, then presented her allegations to voters in a write-in campaign.
The tally in the Yellowstone County portion of the district was 3,331 to 751, favoring Kennedy.
In the Senate, Republican Jeff Essmann defeated Democratic challenger Russell Doty early in Senate District 28, which includes parts of west and northwest Billings. Essmann lead 5,380 to 2,662 at press time.
Also, Republican newcomer Edward Walker defeated Democrat Shirley L. Hanson 5,133 to 2,586 in Senate District 29. Hanson was a late replacement for Democrat Friedrick Schweitzer, nephew of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who withdrew from the race in August.