BOZEMAN — U.S. Rep. Steve Daines defeated Democrat Amanda Curtis on Tuesday night in Montana’s U.S. Senate race, becoming the first Republican in 100 years to win the seat — and also helping his party win back control of the Senate.
The Associated Press and major news networks called the race seconds after the polls closed in Montana at 8 p.m., and Daines had a 12-point lead with about half the votes counted.
Daines was winning with about 55 percent, or 112,000 votes, to Curtis’ 43 percent, or 87,000 votes. Libertarian Roger Roots had 2 percent, or 4,000 votes.
In an interview shortly after being declared the winner, Daines said he’d heard from many Montanans who had “lost their confidence in the federal government,” and yearned for a change of leadership that would start addressing the nation’s problems, rather than be locked in partisan gridlock.
“They’re looking for leaders who bring skills from outside of Washington, from businesses, running small and large businesses, bringing those skills to Washington to solve the problems, of which we have a long list,” said the former executive of a Bozeman software development company.
“I think we have to look at some pragmatic solutions that we can move forward with, with the president,” Daines said.
Daines said one of those priorities may be approving construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would run from Canada to the Gulf Coast, through a corner of Montana. Another would be passing a federal budget that begins to balance, he added.
Curtis, a first-term state representative and high school math teacher from Butte, declined to comment, but her campaign released a statement from her congratulating Daines.
"It is my sincere hope, and the hope of all Montanans, that he reaches out to working families to better understand the issues that affect us," she said.
Curtis became a candidate just 11 weeks ago, replacing Democratic U.S. Sen. John Walsh on the ballot after he withdrew from the race in the wake of revelations that he plagiarized a master’s degree final paper at the U.S. Army War College in 2007.
Minutes before the polls closed, Daines, speaking to supporters in his home town of Bozeman, sounded confident, saying “this is going to be a good night for Montana, and it’s going to be a good night for America.”
A few minutes later, Daines had been declared the winner, and national news networks reported that the Montana race had given Republicans their fifth pick-up of a Democratic seat, tying the Senate between the parties. Republicans later picked up seats that gave them the majority in the Senate starting next year.
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As he spoke to a packed crowd at the Hilton Garden Inn at Bozeman, Daines said that Montana voters had spoken and said they were tired of Democratic leadership in Washington, D.C.
“Montanans want a voice in Washington that represents Montana and not President Obama,” he said. “It seems that America has maybe sent a loud message, that maybe (Democratic U.S. Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid needs a new job description, too.”
Daines, a one-term U.S. representative, looked like a favorite going into the race against Walsh, who was appointed to the position in February, and then became a heavy favorite when Walsh pulled out of the race in August.
Curtis began her campaign Aug. 16, after being nominated by state Democratic Party delegates to replace Walsh, and had an uphill climb to make herself known to Montana voters.
Daines became the first Republican to win this U.S. Senate seat since 1914, when Senate seats first became filled by popular election. The last Republican to hold the Montana Senate seat was Joseph Dixon, who was appointed by the Legislature in 1907. His term expired in 1913.
Daines, 52, broke onto the Montana political scene in 2007, when he led a public effort urging then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer to use a larger portion of a big state budget surplus for tax cuts. He then ran for lieutenant governor in 2008 as the running mate of Republican Roy Brown, who was handily defeated by Schweitzer.
Daines started a campaign in late 2010 to challenge U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in 2012, but in 2011 switched to run for the U.S. House, when Montana’s current congressman, Republican Denny Rehberg, chose to take on Tester. Daines comfortably won the 2012 House race, defeating Democrat Kim Gillan by 10 percentage points.
Daines got into the 2014 U.S. Senate race a year ago, several months after Baucus announced he wouldn’t run for re-election.
Starting in 2000, Daines spent 12 years as an executive for RightNow Technologies, a Bozeman software-development firm that grew from its 1995 founding in Bozeman to 1,100 employees worldwide. It was sold in 2012 to Oracle Corp. for $1.8 billion.
Curtis, 35, is finishing her first term as a state representative from Butte. She grew up in Billings and taught math at Butte Central High School and Helena Middle School before landing her current job at Butte High School in 2009.
Roots, 46, is a college professor who teaches criminal justice and sociology at Jarvis Christian College near Tyler, Texas. He lives in Livingston.