HELENA — Republicans have swept Democrats out of the Montana House, with election returns indicating the GOP may have won as many as 68 of the chamber's 100 seats.
Observers say a national backlash that caused Democrats to lose the U.S. House has trickled down to the state legislative races.
Going into Tuesday's election, Democrats held organizational control of a House split evenly 50-50. The chamber has been managed under close margins for years.
With several races still too tight to call on Wednesday morning, it appeared Republicans will win at least 60 seats and as many as 68.
Republican control of the Senate is not expected to change much from the 27-23 advantage the GOP had heading into Tuesday.
The most intense battleground featured Democrat Rep. Kendall Van Dyk challenging Sen. Roy Brown in Senate District 25, with Van Dyk holding a 16-vote lead in unofficial results early Wednesday. Both sides spent a combined $200,000 on the race, which is headed toward near certain recount.
The Legislature, in particular the House, in recent years has been marked by razor-thin margins that have led to cantankerous debates, historic stalemates and split leadership, giving Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer a distinct advantage in dealing with lawmakers.
Republicans weary of playing second fiddle to the popular governor are hoping a tea party-fueled resurgence will allow them to challenge Schweitzer's policies.
Democrats had been guardedly optimistic heading into the elections that voters would reward their effectiveness in running the state government at a time when most other states have struggled with large deficits, big cuts to core services and even tax increases.
But Republicans believe the Democratic brand has been tarnished by the policies of national Democrats in Washington. The Republicans promised on the campaign trail to use the state Legislature to stymie Montana's implementation of the federal health care overhaul and other programs they believe are unpopular.
Key races around the state included:
• House District 63: Republican Tom Burnett had a slight lead over incumbent Democratic Rep. JP Pomnichowski in suburban Bozeman, but the race was too close to call.
• Senate District 17: House Speaker Bob Bergren, a Havre Democrat, lost to Republican minister Rowlie Hutton for an open Senate seat.
• House District 36: Rep. Julie French, D-Scobey, lost her seat to Republican Austin Knudsen, a Culbertson attorney.
• House District 24: Republican state Rep. Brian Hoven beat teacher Gary Lucero, a Democrat.
• Senate District 39: Republican Sen. Terry Murphy of Cardwell easily fought off a challenge from East Helena state Rep. Jill Cohenour.
• House District 20: Republican Steve Fitzpatrick beat Democrat Donna Zook.
• House District 78: Cohenour's husband, highway patrolman Joe Cohenour, lost his bid to win his wife's open East Helena seat against Republican Steve Gibson.
• House District 77: Democrat Sheila Hogan of Clancy lost in her bid against bar owner Alan Hale of Basin.