HELENA - Republican Public Service Commissioner Brad Molnar of Laurel carved out an early lead in his hotly contested race with Democrat Ron Tussing on Tuesday night for the PSC seat in southeastern Montana.
But Democrats, including challenger Gail Gutsche of Missoula, held substantial leads in early returns in the two other PSC races Tuesday night.
The five-member PSC regulates utilities in Montana, including electric and telephone companies, and can influence state energy policy.
Three of its five seats and party control of the body were up for grabs Tuesday.
Democrats hold a 3-2 majority on the PSC, and the two Republican incumbents are up for re-election.
With more than half the votes counted in the southeastern Montana District 2, Molnar led with 56 percent of the vote over Tussing, the mayor of Billings.
Tussing and Molnar have engaged in a sometimes-bitter campaign, trading charges while debating energy policy.
Tussing, Molnar clash
Molnar has been a critic of wind power as too expensive, while Tussing had the support of conservation and environmental groups and said he supports a more diverse "portfolio" of electricity sources.
In District 4, which includes seven counties in Western Montana, Gutsche had 61 percent of the vote in her quest to unseat Commissioner Doug Mood, R-Seeley Lake. Mood had 39 percent, but only 38 percent of the precincts had been counted.
And in District 3, which covers 14 counties in southwest and south-central Montana, Democrat John Vincent of Gallatin Gateway led with 63 percent of the vote over state Rep. Alan Olson, R-Roundup.
However, only one-fourth of the precincts had been counted, and no votes had been returned from Gallatin County and other counties that often lean toward Republicans.
The District 3 seat is open; Commissioner Bob Raney, D-Livingston, did not run for re-election.
Molnar, 58, broke into politics in 1992 when he won a seat in the state House, representing Laurel. He served four terms until term limits prevented him from running for re-election.
A former construction contractor, Molnar won election to the PSC in 2004, easily defeating a little-known Democratic opponent.
Tussing, 61, served as Billings police chief from 1998 until resigning in early 2005, after a dispute with the city administrator. He successfully ran for mayor of Billings later that year.
Gutsche, 54, was a state House representative from Missoula from 1999 to 2006. Originally from Minnesota, Gutsche moved to Montana in the early 1990s and has worked as a tour guide, writer and consultant.
Mood, 65, whose family operated Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake, also served four terms in the Montana House, from 1997 to 2004, including a stint as speaker of the House in 2003-2004. Mood sold his interest in the Seeley Lake sawmill in 2001.
Mood won a relatively close race for his PSC seat in 2004, defeating Geoff Badenoch of Missoula.
Olson, 53, has been a state legislator from Roundup since 2001. He has often been involved in energy issues at the state Legislature, and he narrowly lost a party caucus vote to become speaker of the Montana House in 2007.
Vincent, 66, taught high school in Bozeman for 30 years and has served as a state legislator, Gallatin County commissioner and mayor of Bozeman. He was speaker of the Montana House in 1987 and 1989.