By Tim Leeds
Incumbent legislators on the Hi-Line held on to their seats in Tuesday's election, with one exception.
Democrat Bob Bergren of Havre defeated Republican incumbent state Rep. Merlin Wolery of Rudyard, 1,486 to 1,432, in House District 90, covering part of Havre and most of western Hill County.
The votes are unofficial until the state completes its canvas, which must be done within 20 of the election.
In the races without incumbents, Democrat Jonathan Windy Boy of Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation defeated Republican Andrew Brekke of Harlem, 1,627 to 1,002, in the race for HD 92 in Chouteau, Hill, Blaine and Phillips counties. Incumbent Matt McCann of Harlem could not run for re-election because of term limits.
Democrat Ken "Kim" Hansen of Harlem defeated Republican Ted Solomon of Havre, 3,011 to 1,828, in the race for Senate District 46 in Chouteau, Hill, Blaine and Phillips counties. Incumbent Democrat Greg Jergeson, who defeated Public Service Commission Chairman Republican Gary Feland in the race for the PSC district seat Tuesday, could not run for the Senate again because of term limits.
In other state races in the area, Republican incumbent John Witt of Carter defeated Democrat Gary Gollehon of Brady, 2,113 to 1,547, in HD 90, covering parts of Chouteau, Liberty and Hill counties.
Democratic incumbent John Musgrove defeated Republican challenger Ron VandenBoom, 1,507 to 678, in the race for HD 91 in Hill and Blaine counties.
Democratic incumbent Jon Tester of Big Sandy defeated Republican challenger Roy Hollandsworth of Brady, 4,646 to 1,879, in the race for SD 45 in Chouteau, Liberty and Hill counties.
Wolery said he thought negative campaigning had a lot to do with his loss. The state Democratic Party mailed fliers and used automated prerecorded phone calls over the weekend linking him to Gov. Judy Martz's agenda, and Bergren bought a series of radio ads claiming Wolery voted for House Bill 124, known as "the Big Bill," which revised how funds are distributed to local governments.
The automated phone calls violated state law, Attorney General Mike McGrath warned the Democratic Party.
"I miss Toni Hagener's integrity," Wolery said. He defeated Hagener, the former Democratic incumbent in HD 90, in the 2000 election.
House records show Wolery voted against HB124, then voted in favor of amendments proposed by Gov. Judy Martz after the bill had already passed the House.
Greg Petesch, director of legal services for the Legislature, said Monday that the bill could not have been killed at that point.
Bergren said he is very excited and pleased by the results of the election. He thinks he and Wolery ran a clean campaign, although the third-party advertising on his behalf didn't please him.
"I called them and said I didn't like it, I don't want it, stay away from me," he said.
Bergren said his ads about HB 124 were based on his understanding of the legislative process.
"The way I understood it, and I still stick by my guns, if you vote on the third reading (of a bill) you can pass it or fail it, and he voted for it," he said.
Bergren added that the HB124 vote was only one of nine issues he campaigned on.
The unofficial election results, while very close, was a large enough victory that Wolery can't ask for a recount without a court order, Janice Doggett of the Montana Secretary of State's office said today.
The results gave Bergren the win by a margin of 1.85 percent. If the margin was less than of 1 percent, a recount is mandatory, Doggett said. If the margin is less than of 1 percent, a candidate can file a petition with the secretary of state within five days of the canvass requesting a recount.
After the final results in his district were released about 2 a.m., Wolery said he didn't want to think right then about whether he will run for public office again.
VandenBoom said the Wolery-Bergren race was especially negative at the end.
VandenBoom said he and Musgrove ran a very clean campaign addressing issues.
"It was a hard-fought campaign. I can't say I'm satisfied with the results. I would have liked to have won, but I have no vendetta against my opponent," he said.
The multiple mailings and phone calls and Bergren's ads about HB124 hurt Wolery's chances, VandenBoom said. Those kinds of tactics by the Democrats were characteristic across the state, he added.
"I think the Democrats stooped to a new low in the way they conducted the campaign," he said.
Voter Doug Tyrrell, 52, said the campaigning seemed to turn more negative as Election Day approached, but it could have been worse.
"It probably went negative late in the game, but compared to other states it was not as cloudy," he said.
Beverly Friede, a Havre retiree, also said it seemed to get worse toward the end. Some of it seemed like an overreaction, she added, like U.S. Senate candidate Mike Taylor claiming a Democratic ad tried to portray him as a gay hairdresser.
Solomon said it was a tough battle trying to win a seat held by Democrats for the last 20 years. A projected state budget deficit, estimated at $250 million to $350 million, while Republicans control the Legislature and the governor's office probably didn't help his campaign, he said.
Hansen said he was very happy with the results in all the precincts in his district.
"I was really tickled with the reservation votes," he added. "They really came out in force. I really owe Rocky Boy and Fort Belknap a lot of credit."
Both candidates in SD 46 said they were pleased that their opponent ran a clean campaign.
Hansen said there did seem to be a lot of negative campaigning elsewhere this year, from the national level down to the local level.
"I had a very worthy opponent. We ran a clean campaign and that's what politics has to be about, in my mind," Hansen said.