By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Montana Democrats finally recaptured the governor's office and they did it with someone who had never won an election before.
Brian Schweitzer, a Whitefish farmer-rancher who presented an image of government outsider willing to shake up the state government establishment after 16 years of GOP rule in the governor's office, defeated Republican Secretary of State Bob Brown on Tuesday.
The victory returned the office to Democrats' hands for the first time in 16 years. Schweitzer succeeds Republican Judy Martz, who did not run for a second term.
With 83 percent of the votes counted, Schweitzer had 176,182 votes, or 52 percent, and Brown had 152,192 votes, or 45 percent. Green Party candidate Bob Kelleher of Butte got 6,517 votes, or 2 percent, and Libertarian Stan Jones of Bozeman had 5,435 votes, or 2 percent.
''It's a new day in Montana,'' Schweitzer said after his victory Tuesday night, borrowing a phrase from his campaign ads.
The governor-elect repeated his frequent campaign promise of change and bipartisan rule, something he tried to convey through his historic creation of a split-party ticket. He chose John Bohlinger, a Republican state senator from Billings, as his running mate.
Schweitzer, 49, promised to reach out to friend and foe alike in the election's after math. He said he would spend today calling Republican and Democratic lawmakers seeking their cooperation in the upcoming legislative session.
''I will ask a lot of people who didn't support us to come on board,'' he said. ''I'm the governor of the entire state, not just those who supported us.''
Schweitzer said the voters' message in the election was clear. ''It's time to have new leadership that works together, leadership that reaches out to people.
''There's been a fatigue of just hearing the same old message over and over again,'' he added. ''The days of demagoguery are over.''
Schweitzer's only previous political foray was in 2000, when he mounted a serious challenge to Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.
Brown, 56, said his loss reflected Montanans' desire for change and not necessarily a referendum on the years of Republican control of the legislative and executive branches.
''Sometimes the people just decide it's time to change direction or decide it's time for a change in the leadership,'' he said. ''There's a sort of rhythm in politics.''
Republicans held the governor's office for 16 years until 1968 when Democrats took it over for 20 years and then the GOP held if for 16 more, Brown noted.
He said he does not see Schweitzer's win as the beginning of a new Democratic reign in Montana politics. ''It's premature'' to make such a judgment, he said.
Exit polling showed Schweitzer and Brown each held onto his political base, but Schweitzer had an edge among independents.
In incomplete returns early today, Schweitzer led Brown in just 19 of the 56 counties, but they included the state's most-populous: Cascade, Gallatin, Hill, Lewis and Clark, Missoula, Silver Bow and Yellowstone.
Results from Flathead County were delayed because of vote-counting problems.
The race was a tight one by the final month, with a late October poll showing Schweitzer with a five-point lead over Brown.
The campaign also was marked in the closing weeks by a string of TV and radio advertisements critical of both candidates.
Brown and the Republican Governors Association ran separate ads accusing Schweitzer of taking hypocritical stands, refusing to release his income tax records and irritating people with whom he's done business.
Schweitzer and the Montana Democratic Party aired ads branding Brown a career politician and lobbyist, allied with the unpopular Martz, involved in deregulation of the electric industry and linked to a company sued for withholding money due its employees.
The men were a mix of similarities and differences in the campaign.
Both are from Whitefish and relatively moderate politically. Each made improving the Montana economy a major theme of his campaign and they advocated better funding of schools and advanced ideas to deal with rising health care costs.
But while Brown argued his 26 years in the Legislature and four years as secretary of state gave him the ideal resume to be governor, Schweitzer said it made Brown the kind of government insider that voters should not want in the governor's chair.
When Schweitzer repeatedly touted his experience in private business as giving him the tools to run government better, Brown challenged him to prove his success in business. The national GOP governors group joined in, suggesting that Schweitzer's refusal to do so was an attempt to hide a shady past.