HELENA — Montana voters have handed Denny Rehberg a sixth term of office, elected a new Supreme Court justice and approved three ballot initiatives.
Republican Rehberg easily defeated challenger Dennis McDonald, the former chairman of the state Democratic Party. Rehberg brushed off McDonald's attempts to paint him as an ineffective incumbent who has accomplished little during his tenure in Congress.
With 98 of precincts reporting early today, Rehberg had nearly 61 percent of the vote, setting him up to join his fellow Republicans as part of the new majority party in the U.S. House.
"I am pretty excited about the direction the country is taking as far as the U.S. House of Representatives (goes)," Rehberg said. "I am just glad I get to be a part of it."
Rehberg now promises to make the economy his top priority by advocating for tax breaks while pushing for spending reform with his seat on the House Appropriations Committee.
Helena attorney Beth Baker defeated District Judge Nels Swandal to win an eight-year term on the Montana Supreme Court.
"We worked very hard, and we upheld the principles of integrity and respect on which the judiciary branch depends," Baker said of her campaign.
The nonpartisan race took an unexpected political turn with Swandal touting his conservative roots. He said early today that he believes Supreme Court elections should be partisan.
"I think it would have helped if it was partisan, at least people would have known what you stand for," Swandal said. "There are just too many people who don't study the race."
Baker, who was an assistant attorney general for both Republican and Democratic administrations before entering private practice, campaigned on her nonpartisan background. She touted her endorsements from prominent leaders from both parties and said her experience would help her build consensus on the court.
Swandal, a 16-year judge from Wilsall, tried to appeal to conservatives while campaigning for the nonpartisan race, making statements in support of gun rights and a campaign ad in which he speaks of his past support of Republicans.
Voters passed a ballot initiative to put a 36 percent cap on payday loan interest rates, which can now run at annualized interest rates of up to 650 percent. The loans typically allow a person to borrow up to $300 for a short period, usually two weeks. The lender can charge up to 25 percent of the value of that loan — that's $75 in the case of the $300 loan.
Supporters of the initiative to cap the rate say it's a predatory practice aiming to trap vulnerable segments of the population.
Voters also approved an initiative to abolish 7,800 guaranteed outfitter-sponsored hunting licenses and raise fees on nonresident licenses by about half.
The measure pitted public access advocates against outfitters and some landowners who rely on income from visiting hunters. Supporters said the measure would reverse a trend toward the commercialization of public wildlife.
Critics said passage of the initiative would undermine the ability of many small outfitting businesses to market deer and elk hunts to well-off clients.
Voters passed a proposal to rewrite the Montana Constitution to ban any new real estate transfer taxes. The proposal was backed with a lot of money from real estate agents and business groups. But opponents had said the constitution should not be changed to deal with specific tax law, and that was an area best left to the Legislature.
Finally, voters rejected a ballot question on whether the state should call a convention to rewrite the constitution. Every 20 years, a ballot measure asks the voters whether they want to call such a convention.
The 1972 Constitution was adopted by 100 delegates in March of 1972 and ratified a few months later by the voters.