HELENA -- Running for everything from U.S. Senate to the Montana Supreme Court to the state Legislature, a record number of candidates chose to jump into the 2012 election fray Thursday on the first day of candidate filing at the Capitol.
Over the Internet or in person, 155 people paid their filing fee to become official candidates in what's expected to be one of the most expensive, chaotic and hotly contested election years in Montana history.
Topping the list Thursday was Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who paid his $1,740 fee to challenge U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in one of the most-watched U.S. Senate races in the nation.
"What's going to build a more secure future for the people of our communities, our state, our country?" he asked at a news conference at the Capitol in Helena. "It's changing the U.S. Senate majority ... and coming up with a new president who clearly understands that you cannot spend your way into prosperity."
Tester plans to file later for re-election to his seat. He and other candidates have until March 12 to file to get on the 2012 Montana ballot.
At least one candidate filed Thursday for every statewide office up for election this year, including U.S. House, governor, attorney general, House, Supreme Court justice, state auditor, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction and Supreme Court clerk.
Secretary of State Linda McCulloch -- who is up for re-election herself this year -- said the number of candidates set a first-day filing record, breaking the previous high of 106 set in 2010.
McCulloch's office administers elections in the state, and she spent the day greeting candidate filers in her office lobby -- and having on hand the usual supply of flag-shaped cookies frosted to look like a U.S. flag.
McCulloch said a half-dozen would-be candidates were waiting outside her office's door when she opened at 8 a.m., including the first person to file: Democratic U.S. House candidate Rob Stutz, whom McCulloch said was there with his children before taking them to school.
Stutz is one of five Democrats expected to run for Montana's U.S. House seat, which is being vacated by Rehberg.
Republican Neil Livingstone became the first gubernatorial candidate, along with running mate Ryan Zinke, to file for that office Thursday, at about 11:30 a.m.
Livingstone is one of nine Republicans running for the governor's seat, which is being vacated by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who's prevented by term limits from running again.
Zinke, a state senator from Whitefish, said he and Livingstone hope being first to file won't be the last time they come in first.
"We expect it to be the same way on the ballot," he said. "We have a history of not coming in second."
Candidates also filed Friday for state district judgeships, seats on the state Public Service Commission and, of course, the state Legislature.
One-hundred-twenty-six people filed to run for the 2013 Legislature, and Republicans and Democrats alike held dueling news conferences in the Capitol, outlining their agenda and hopes to win or hold onto majorities for the next session that starts a year from now.
Republicans hold a 68-32 majority in the state House and a 28-22 margin in the state Senate.
They touted their work at the 2011 Legislature, noting that they cut government spending, cut taxes for business and streamlined business regulations, and promised more of the same.
"Republican leaders showed Montana that we know that jobs matter, and we're serious about increasing opportunities and putting Montana back to work," said Sen. Taylor Brown, R-Huntley. "With that just said, there is a lot of work left to do. And that's why we're here today."
Democrats said they're confident they can cut into Republican majorities and possibly win the majority, by emphasizing how GOP members struck out on radical, fringe agendas during the 2011 Legislature and killed attempts to invest in state infrastructure and education.
"The difference for us is we're going to do something about (jobs)," said House Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, who's running for the state Senate. "We are not going to just talk about it."