HELENA — Jon Tester, a populist farmer, won a decisive victory over John Morrison in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate on Tuesday and will face three-term Republican incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns, who won his primary handily, in November.
Tester, outspent by Morrison by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, led almost from the start of the vote counting Tuesday evening. He ended up defeating Morrison, the state auditor, by about 25 percentage points in the five-way primary.
Although Tester was considered an underdog in the five-candidate Democratic Senate race, he gained momentum in closing weeks of the campaign through an extensive grass-roots effort.
Burns, meanwhile, coasted to an easy victory over state Senate Minority Leader Bob Keenan to capture the four-way Republican primary. Burns topped Keenan by a better than a 3-to-1 margin.
Montana's Senate race is among the most watched nationally because Burns is rated as one of the most vulnerable Republican senators for his link to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Here are the latest results as of 9:00 am, with 98 percent of the votes counted:
- Tester: 64,464 votes or 60.8 percent.
- Morrison: 37,516 votes or 35.4 percent.
- Paul Richards: 1,602 or 1.5 percent.
- Robert Candee: 1,449 votes or 1.4 percent.
- Kenneth Marcure: 921 votes or 0.9 percent.
- Burns: 68,511 votes or 72.4 percent.
- Keenan: 20,970 votes or 22.2 percent.
- Bob Kelleher: 3,971 votes or 4.2 percent.
- Daniel Lloyd Neste Huffman: 1,159 votes or 1.2 percent.
Over the clamor of a victory party in a Missoula hotel, Tester said in a telephone interview, "I thought we had a good chance of winning this thing. The numbers surprised me."
Tester attributed his win to his campaign's grass-roots efforts involving hundreds of volunteers. Morrison outspent him $1.14 million to $662,805.
"We hit the ground running tomorrow, and it's another campaign for five months," Tester said. "It's overdrive now. It's for real. It's all-out. We did a lot of hard work getting here, and there's no looking back."
Tester had argued that he was the only Democrat who could go "belly to belly and toe to toe" with Burns on the issue of ethics.
That was Tester's way of suggesting Morrison couldn't match up with Burns. The reason was that Morrison, before his election as auditor, had had an extramarital affair with a woman in Bigfork.
That woman later married a Flathead Valley businessman, David Tacke, who was investigated by Morrison's office for securities fraud. Some critics said Morrison's office went soft on Tacke, a charge Morrison adamantly denied.
After being declared the winner Tuesday night and listening to a concession call from Morrison, Tester called Morrison "a stand-up guy" and said he was pleased with the auditor's pledge to unite behind him in the fall.
Burns, in an interview Tuesday night, said he was pleased by his margin of victory. He said he doesn't believe in election referendums but said, "It's about our party and what we stand for."
Burns congratulated Keenan and his other GOP rivals and said, "Our challenge is to get the Republicans all back on track and march forward."
The senator said he was forced to mount an aggressive primary race, spending $3.6 million, because he's been under attack since last summer by the Montana Democratic Party and the Democratic Senate candidates, who have criticized his ties to Abramoff.
Burns said Montanans "have not heard anything but bad stuff" about him, so he had to fight back aggressively.
"This election started early with some false attacks and mudslinging," he said. "As your senator, I want you to know that I have done nothing wrong and I intend to continue to vigorously defend my record."
Burns said Tester is a good campaigner and has a voting record that "I think will be contrasted to mine."
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Shortly after Tester was declared the winner, Burns fired off a statement calling on Tester to say how he would vote on some hot-button issues coming before the U.S. Senate such as the proposed constitutional bans on gay marriage and flag burning and the repeal of the estate tax.
"These are all important issues, and Montanans deserve to know how you would vote," Burns said.
In response, Tester spokesman Bill Lombardi said, "Voters across Montana have spoken loudly and clearly tonight. They want to end Senator Burns' kind of corruption in Washington, and we're looking forward to that kind of debate."
Morrison said he called Tester around 10:30 p.m. and conceded the race. He told his supporters in a Helena restaurant and bar that "deciding to run for the United States Senate was the biggest decision of my career and one of the biggest decisions of my family's life." The effort, he said, is bigger than just one person or one race.
"Which is why tonight our journey does not end, but rather it begins," he said.
Morrison said he ran to "restore integrity" to Montana's U.S. Senate seat once occupied by Mike Mansfield. He said there is "much more" to be said about Burns' involvement in an ongoing lobbying scandal involving confessed felon and former lobbyist Abramoff.
"The general election will be about a senator who sold out the people of Montana," Morrison said.
Keenan, meanwhile, said he was hoping to wind up with 30 percent in his last-minute campaign for the Senate.
"An eight- or nine-week, $60,000 campaign and 23 to 24 percent of the vote isn't bad," he said, but added: "I most definitely recognize there aren't any silver medals in politics."
On the Democratic side, Morrison, 44, has twice been elected state auditor. He has made extending health insurance coverage and fighting securities and insurance fraud his top priorities as auditor.
Morrison, who previously worked as a Helena trial lawyer, comes from a political family. His grandfather was a three-term governor of Nebraska, and his father was a Montana Supreme Court justice and candidate for governor.
Tester, 49, is the president of the Montana Senate after serving as minority leader in 2003. He is an organic grain farmer from Big Sandy who previously taught music in local schools.
As a legislator since 1999, Tester has made health care, renewable energy, biofuels and school funding his top priorities. Tester has called on Burns to resign his Senate seat because of the Abramoff scandal.
As for the top Republicans, Burns, 71, is completing his third Senate term and sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. His campaign slogan, "Delivering for Montana," refers to the more than $2 billion that Burns has secured for Montana in federal grants.
A former Yellowstone County commissioner, Burns worked as an airline clerk, a salesman for a cattle magazine and an auctioneer before starting an agricultural broadcasting network. He is the first Republican senator in Montana history to be re-elected.
Keenan, 54, was minority leader of the Montana Senate after previously serving as Senate president in 2003. In 2001, he served as chairman of the key Senate Finance Committee, which helps set the state budget.
He and his wife have owned and operated the Bigfork Inn but are in the process of selling it. Keenan entered the U.S. Senate race late and barnstormed across Montana in a leased Winnebago with his family.
Richards, 51, a Democrat from Boulder, ran as a peace candidate. Last week, he threw his support to Tester in an effort to push him past Morrison in the primary. Richards is an ex-lawmaker who works as a writer and consultant.
Another Democratic candidate was Candee, 64, a farmer from Richey who lost a bid for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House in 2002. He is best known for bankrolling college scholarships for local students.
The other Democrat was Kenneth Marcure, 58, a Missoula man who has lived for most of the past 30 years in Japan, where he teaches. Marcure, saying he wanted to be a Don Quixote in the race, was highly critical of President Bush.
Kelleher, 83, a perennial candidate from Butte, ran on the Republican ticket for the first time after several decades of futility as a Democrat and, more recently, a Green Party candidate. He is an attorney and was a delegate to the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention.
Huffman, 48, ran as a Republican from Great Falls after several failed bids for Cascade County office as a Reform Party candidate. He is a car salesman and bingo caller who called for doubling the state's minimum wage.