MARY CLARE JALONICK Associated Press Writer
GREAT FALLS Republican Sen. Conrad Burns lost his job in a squeaker of a race Wednesday, thrust from office due to his own gaffes, his ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and a determined campaign by Democrat Jon Tester, a farmer. Tester’s win not only changes the state’s Senate delegation for the first time in 18 years, it also gives Democrats at least half of the seats in the U.S. Senate. Democrats will now take the Senate if they win a tight race in Virginia. That race is headed for a recount. Tester and Burns, a three-term incumbent, were separated by about 3,100 votes with 99 percent of precincts reporting. Tester had 198,032 votes, or 49 percent, to Burns’ 194,904, or 48 percent. Libertarian Stan Jones had 10,303 votes or about 3 percent. Burns was seen late this morning leaving the Billings hotel where he had been gathered with supporters. He declined to comment to reporters, saying only that he was going to his Billings home to be near family. Tester, who took to the airwaves before dawn, was confident in victory even when preliminary results showed his lead under 2,000 votes. “100,000 miles and 15 hours later, here we did it,” Tester said later in the day. “It is absolutely, critically important that we change the direction of the country. “Now is the time to come together and put politics aside.” Tester’s campaign said it did not immediately hear from the Burns campaign. Vote tallies were still coming in Wednesday morning, more than 10 hours after polls were scheduled to close a situation caused by equipment glitches, high turnout and a recount in Yellowstone County because of errors there. The race was being closely watched by a nation waiting to see which party would take control of the U. S. Senate. Tester, 50, rode a populist message and voter disgruntlement over corruption and the war in Iraq to beat burns. The campaign was bitter and expensive from the start. Burns called in GOP big guns in the final days of the campaign to try to rescue the race for him. It wasn’t enough. Burns, 71, was first elected in a 1988 upset as the folksy, backslapping Washington outsider. Tester used a very similar style not only as a Washington outsider, but a bit of an outsider to his own party. He likes guns and opposes gay Marriage, for instance. Tester resisted help from the national party and instead campainged heavily with Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Montana U. S. Sen. Max Baucus. During the campaign, Tester hammered Burns for his ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and what Tester called the “culture of corruption” in Washington. The incumbent also hurt himself with verbal gaffes including an incident this summer when he cursed at firefighters at the airport in Billings. He was left with with some of his lowest approval ratings of any election, while trying to fight one of his toughest opponents yet. Burns fought back on taxes in the race’s final weeks, trying to paint Tester as too liberal for Montana, and he made the race increasingly tight. Tester surprised many during the election. He was not expected to make it out of the primary, but ended up beating a better financed and better known Democrat in the June. The Montana secretary of state’s office said the vote margin from Tuesday’s election appeared outside what would be required for a recount, but would have to wait for official vote counts to be certain. A losing candidate can request a recount at his own expense if the margin is within one-half of a percent, which would be a margin off roughly 2,000 votes in the Montana U.S. Senate race. If the margin is less than one-fourth of a percent, the state and the counties will pick up the tab. The latest figures put the difference at more than three-quarters of a percent.