MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA An election that was supposed to prove Montana a “red” or “blue” state only solidified the state as another color altogether. “We’re not blue, really, we’re purple is probably what you would say,” said political scientist Craig Wilson. Democrats took the big prize when Jon Tester narrowly defeated Republican incumbent Conrad Burns in the state’s U.S. Senate race. But Republicans held their own and made some gains in the state Legislature. Montana is the only state likely to see a legislative chamber flip to the GOP this year. With votes still being tallied in some races separated by fewer than 20 votes, the GOP appears poised to take a 50- 49 advantage in the House, with one conservative Constitution Party candidate. That breaks a 50-50 tie. And on ballot measures, Montanans continued their unpredictable voting. They sided with labor interests on a measure to raise the minimum wage two years after voting to ban gay marriage. Democrats definitely don’t own the state. After all, Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg received more votes than anyone on Tuesday, Wilson points out. And there are still more self-identified Republicans in the state than Democrats. “I think it demonstrates again that Montanans are very independent in terms of voting and they are ticket splitters,” said Wilson, who conducts polls regularly from Montana State University-Billings, where he is on the faculty. Leaders here say Montana can’t be pegged as either blue or red. Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus said it has always bothered him that the national media and political pundits considered Montana a Republican stronghold in the past. It’s a state that can’t be pigeonholed quite as easily as some would think, he said. “Montana politics has a lot more to do with the candidates themselves and the issues, as opposed to the title they wear,” Baucus said. “Tester came across as a more credible person, someone that Montana could be proud of having work for them back in Washington.” Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer has said Montanans will sometimes go left, and sometimes they will go right. “We’re not red, we’re not blue,” Schweitzer told the National Press Club last month. “Quit calling us blue and red. We’re Americans.” Modest GOP legislative gains, including the one-seat majority in the House that depends on some still too-close-tocall races and a projected tie in the state Senate, give the party little to Cheer about. Baucus has a firm hold on his seat, while Schweitzer is one of the most popular governors in the country. And with Burns gone, Rehberg holds the mantle as Montana’s last experienced Republican with widespread name recognition. Of the statewide offices, the Republicans currently hold only the secretary of state’s office Democrats hold others, such as superintendent of public instruction and attorney general. A footnote in the U.S. Senate race sheds a little light on how difficult it still is for a Democrat to win, even the right candidate. The same Libertarian candidate who drew roughly 7,000 votes two years ago in a gubernatorial bid drew more than 10,000 votes this year votes that conventional wisdom says could have largely gone Burns’ way for perhaps another win. Still, losing Burns’ U.S. Senate seat was a big blow to Republicans. “I have no doubt that the pendulum is swinging toward the Democrats,” Wilson said. “But as of now, we are not a blue state.” Wilson said the 2008 presidential election will be telling, with respect to Montanans’ political leanings. Only the right Democrat would have a chance to carry the state, he said. “If it’s Hillary Clinton vs. John McCain, I don’t have very much trouble making that prediction right now,” he said.