GREAT FALLS — Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who faced a relentless re-election challenge from Montana’s GOP Congressman Denny Rehberg, was declared the winner early Wednesday morning.

The Associated Press called the race shortly before 9 a.m., as Tester had a 17,000-vote lead with about 90 percent of the votes in.

Tester, targeted nationally by Republicans as a possible pickup for the GOP in its attempt to take over the U.S. Senate, had about 48.6 percent of the vote Wednesday morning, while Rehberg had 44.7 percent.

The difference in the race appeared to be a strong showing by Libertarian Dan Cox, who had 6.5 percent, and who was the beneficiary of campaign pieces and ads paid financed by Tester supporters in the waning days of the campaign.

Tester, who was eating breakfast at a Great Falls hotel when the race was called, said that the race “pretty much went true to form — we figured it would be a long night.”

But he also said that in the closing days, he felt a surge of energy from his supporters as he barnstormed across the state, and was confident that he could win.

“That really translated into making me feel good about what was going on,” he told the Gazette State Bureau.

In a statement Wednesday morning, Rehberg congratulated Tester, said he respects the voters’ decision, and thanked his many supporters.

“Senator Tester and I share an abiding love for Montana and America, a value which transcends political party or disagreements on policy,” he said.

Tester, a farmer from Big Sandy, said he’s looking forward to the Senate getting to work on the nation’s debt and deficit problems during its lame-duck session this year — and that he’s hopeful something substantial can be crafted soon.

“I hope we can get a plan for the deficit and the debt, that we can get done in the first quarter (of next year),” he said. “When we deal with that in a common-sense way … I think it will help the economy a lot.”

Tester said he stayed up until about 3:30 a.m., watching returns, but caught about four hours of sleep in his room at the Holiday Inn before rising Wednesday. He ate breakfast with his wife, Sharla, and other family members and supporters.

Rehberg spent Tuesday night at a Billings hotel and convention center, but had not made a public statement late by early morning.

Tester and Rehberg, a six-term congressman for Montana, have waged the most expensive campaign in Montana history, spending $20 million between themselves and weathering an avalanche of additional spending by outside groups on behalf of both candidates.

Outside groups have spent an estimated $30 million or more, as the race was thought to be a possible tipping point in party control for the U.S. Senate.

Yet as results from other U.S. Senate races from across the country came in Tuesday night, it became clear that Democrats will maintain their majority in the U.S. Senate, regardless of the Montana results.

When asked about the makeup of the Senate, Tester said he hoped that people could put partisan differences aside and work on problems facing the natioin.

“In the end, we have to start working together,” he said. “If we don’t do that, it doesn’t matter who controls the Senate.”

Tester spent part of Tuesday on his farm near Big Sandy and then came to the Holiday Inn in Great Falls, where he hung out in his hotel room with his wife, Sharla, their children and grandchildren and Tester’s two brothers.

Shortly after 9 p.m., Tester came down to a ballroom of raucous supporters, who moments later cheered the national TV network announcements projecting that President Barack Obama would win re-election. Tester remained among the ballroom crowd well past midnight, chatting with supporters, signing campaign signs and checking his smart phone.

Rehberg worked Monday, mostly on get -out-the-vote efforts, but spent Tuesday relaxing with his family, campaign spokesman Chris Bond said.

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