The battle for the 2009 Legislature was supposed to hinge on a handful of swing districts, in which leaders were pulling away four hours after polls closed Tuesday.
In Billings and rural southeast Montana, Republicans were hoping to regain control of the state Senate for the first time since 2003 by unseating incumbent Democrats in districts with conservative-leaning voters.
The party launched a strong challenge to Sen. Lane Larson, D-Billings, by running broadcasting personality Taylor Brown of Huntley in Senate District 22.
By midnight, Brown was outpacing Larson by just 2 percent, 4,186 to 3,680.
The district, which stretches from Billings to Miles City, has its share of radios tuned to Brown's Northern Ag Network. Larson, a union electrician, has deep family ties in the area. Combined, the candidates raised $130,000, making their race the Legislature's most expensive.
Democrats portrayed Brown as the next Conrad Burns, the former U.S. senator ousted in 2006, who once owned the Northern Ag Network and used his radio presence to launch a successful political career.
Democrats currently have a 26-24 edge in the state Senate, while Republicans have a thin 50-49 edge in the state House, with one Constitution Party member who usually votes with the GOP.
In either chamber, the party with the majority sets the table, appointing committee chairs and generally deciding which bills are heard and ultimately passed. For Republicans, control of at least one chamber is crucial, with Democrat Brian Schweitzer prevailing in his race for a second term as governor.
Likewise, the governor can expect a long stalemate if Democrats do not secure a majority in at least one chamber for the 2009 Legislature, which begins in two months.
Shortly before midnight, Brown said majority rule shouldn't be what matters most in the next Senate.
"So what. We have to work together. It doesn't matter who has control. We're within a vote or two of each other, and we've got to work together," Brown said.
The race for SD22 was ugly at times, but Brown said there wasn't a lot of difference between him and Larson. The two have different political philosophies, but were both local guys, with their hearts and families in Montana. He said Larson was a good man and not the cause for the political campaigning that turned negative toward the end of the race.
Regionally, several tight races expected by insiders to determine control of the 2009 Legislature were toss-ups late into the evening.
Democrats seemed to be winning the battle to snag Senate District 27, a Republican seat vacated by termed-out Sen. Cory Stapleton, R-Billings. Democrat Gary Branae pulled away early from Republican Jack Sands in that race, 2,645 to 2,161. Although Stapleton held the seat, the district was considered Democratic-leaning by insiders at the campaign's start. It was thought to be the Democrats' only strong chance to flip a Senate seat.
"The district probably should have been Democratic to begin with in the last election cycle four years ago," Branae said. "I represented part of that district for eight years, and they're just really hardworking-class people who represent the principles of the Democratic Party."
Both candidates were political veterans. Branae, a retired math teacher and counselor at Billings Senior High School, is winding up his fourth term in the state House, where term limits prevent him from running again. Sands, an attorney, represented Billings in the state House from 1983 to 1988.
In one previously competitive district, Sen. Lynda Moss, D-Billings, trounced Republican challenger Max Graham, 3,986 to 2,560, in Senate District 26. Moss squeezed past former legislator Bruce Simon to win the seat for the first time in 2004. But as an incumbent, Moss, executive director of Foundation for Community Vitality, put the race out of reach early.
Graham, who works for Western States Benefit Planning, was a newcomer to politics.
The fourth and final big Senate race in the region was in the far northeast corner of the state, where in late ballot counting Glasgow Democrat and pharmacist Shirley Baumgartner was trailing Republican John Brendan of Scobey, 2,106 to 2,517, in Senate District 18. Most recently, the district was held by a Democrat, but only because Sen. Sam Kitzenberg, of Glasgow, switched parties. Term limits prevented Kitzenberg from running again.
Brenden is a farmer, businessman and former state senator and Republican Party chairman.
"When you talk about all these rural districts coming in over six counties, it's very hard to know the outcome," Brendan said as he listened from home as the results came in on the radio.
In the battle for the state House, Democrats were attempting to unseat Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel, in House District 58, which is anchored by the railroad and refinery community. Kerns, a local veterinarian, won House District 58 by just three votes in 2006.
With all precincts counted, Kerns was leading Democrat Don Woerner, 2,229 votes to 2,221, close enough to prompt a recount for the second election in a row in that district. Woerner is also a Laurel veterinarian and an unsuccessful challenger to Rep. Penny Morgan, R-Billings, and Sen. Dan McGee, R-Laurel. Kerns and Woerner ran an old-fashioned newspaper campaign in the Laurel Outlook, each buying weekly column space to get his points across.
In Carbon County, Rep. Scott Boggio, R-Red Lodge, lost to Democratic challenger Paul Beck, also of Red Lodge, 1,654 to 1,874. Beck owns Mountain Home Inspection. Boggio, a rancher, was considered vulnerable to upset by Democrats after the House District 59 lawmaker was arrested during the 2007 Legislature for drunken driving. His passenger, Rep. Elsie Arntzen, R-Billings, is a member of the Yellowstone County DUI Task Force and also faced re-election Tuesday.
Arntzen, a Billings schoolteacher was holding off Democratic challenger Linda Wetzel, 2,097 to 1,489, in House District 53. The two-term legislator initially faced Democrat Gaye Kopczynski, who withdrew over the summer. Wetzel, a retired substitute teacher, was appointed thereafter.