MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns conceded defeat to Jon Tester this morning, acknowledging that a tight election had gone to the Democrat’s favor, Burns’ campaign told The Associated Press. Burns, the three-term folksy backslapper undone by some verbal gaffes and voter discontent with Iraq, corruption and President Bush, congratulated Tester. “I stand ready to help as Montana transitions to a new United States Senator,” Burns said in a statement provided to the AP. “We fought the good fight and we came up just a bit short. We’ve had a good 18 years and I am proud of my record.” Burns did not plan any public appearances today, his campaign said, instead conceding in a release that thanked supporters. “For 18 years, Montanans trusted me to hear their concerns, help solve their problems, and made being a United States senator from Montana the best job anybody could have,” Burns said. “I will forever be grateful to this state for that honor and proud of my accomplishments.” Burns, 71, did not give any indication of what he planned to do now, other than saying “I hope there is still a good-sized buck out there, because I am going hunting.” Democrat Jon Tester fit some farm chores in between an onslaught of media interviews today, while looking ahead to life as a U.S. Senator. Tester was picking up a barrel of oil in Great Falls on the way to his grain farm in Big Sandy, where he was spending a little time after Wednesday morning’s long wait to learn he had beat Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns. “He got a good night’s rest, he’s upbeat and he’s thinking about the future, clearly,” said Tester campaign spokesman Matt McKenna. Burns had yet to concede the race, and has not been seen publicly since Tuesday night. His campaign office did not immediately return calls this morning. Tester ran as an outsider to the Washington culture, the same theme Burns had used nearly two decades earlier. This election, Burns touted his Washington connections as the way to bring federal money to Montana, while Tester played Burns’ ties to convicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff against him. “It is absolutely, critically important that we change the direction of the country,” Tester, 50, the state Senate president, said Wednesday after declaring victory by a thin margin of about 3,000 votes. Tester said he wanted to empower the middle class, working families, small businesses and family farms and ranches “the people who have made this country so great.” “It really is time to put politics aside,” he said. “We’ve got many, many issues that are facing this great state and this country, both in foreign policy and domestic policy. We’ve talked about them for the last 18 months. Now is the time to roll up our sleeves and get some things done.” Tester’s win and fellow Democrat Jim Webb’s close victory in Virginia gave the Democrats the 51 Senate seats they need to control the chamber. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Tester had 198,302 votes, or 49.1 percent, to Burns’ 194,904 votes, or 48.3 percent. If the margin of victory ends up within half of a percentage point roughly 2,000 votes Burns could request a recount. But Montana’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Johnson said officials don’t expect that to happen. “The margin appears to be too broad,” he said. Burns issued a statement Wednesday saying Tester ran a good race but noted “it is extremely close.” “The state of Montana has a process in place, and it is our obligation to see it through,” Burns said. “There is no need to rush to a conclusion when the votes are this close.” Together, the two campaigns spent more than $12 million. Burns, 71, had not helped his own cause, with verbal gaffes that included cursing at a firefighting crew in a state that sees thousands of acres burned in wildfires every summer. Burns was first elected in 1988 as a folksy, backslapping outsider, but this year, he was joined on the campaign trail by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Tester, meanwhile, relied on rallies with Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Sen. Max Baucus of Montana and resisted help from the national party. When Burns tried to paint him as a liberal who wants to raise taxes and “cut and run” from Iraq, the liberal tag didn’t seem to stick to the man who sports scuffed cowboy boots and a flattop haircut. Tester portrayed himself as a Western moderate who owns guns, opposes gay marriage and has a libertarian’s suspicion of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act. He hammered Burns over his ties to Abramoff. Burns was a top recipient of campaign contributions from Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January to corruption. Burns has since returned or donated to charity about $150,000 he receive that was connected to Abramoff. He maintains he did nothing wrong and was not influenced by the lobbyist. Ballot-counting problems delayed results of the race by about seven hours, keeping the nation in suspense. Duane Winslow, election administrator for Montana’s most populous area, Yellowstone County, said he made a computer error while tabulating absentee ballots that required officials to start the process over.