HELENA — Attorney General Steve Bullock easily won Montana's Democratic nomination for governor Tuesday night and looked ahead to a general election battle with former U.S. Rep. Rick Hill, who topped a crowded Republican field.
Hill was always considered the front-runner on the GOP side but had to fight hard to seal the win over state Sens. Corey Stapleton of Billings and Ken Miller of Laurel.
With 75 percent of the projected vote counted, Hill led with 34 percent to 18 percent each for Stapleton and Miller. Choteau County Commissioner James O'Hara had 12 percent.
Bullock led Heather Margolis of Helena 87-13 percent.
Bullock and Hill are vying to replace Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat who is prevented from running again due to term limits.
"Montana is at a crossroads, and who we elect as governor will decide what kind of Montana we have for the future," Bullock said.
Bullock has been a rising star for Montana Democrats. He is gambling that he can win the governor's office after serving just one term as attorney general.
Bullock highlighted his fight against the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United campaign finance decision. He is asking the court to preserve Montana's century-old ban on certain corporate spending on elections, fighting conservative groups who want many of the state's spending restrictions tossed out.
Bullock faced nominal primary opposition from Margolis. But the competition allowed Bullock, by state law, to carry over thousands of dollars in primary donations to his general election fight.
Republicans are hoping they can reclaim a governor's office they lost when Judy Martz, facing low approval ratings, declined to seek a second term. Schweitzer took office in 2004, easily won re-election in 2008 and has frustrated Republicans in the legislature.
Hill served two terms in Congress from 1997-2000 before deciding to leave office, citing a deteriorating condition with his eyesight. He announced a return to politics last year, saying the eye problem had been fixed.
Throughout the primary, the 66-year-old Hill raised more money than his opponents and gobbled up plenty of institutional support.
"We were in a crowded primary of strong competitors who put a lot of their own money into the race. That obviously forced us to respond in a way that we otherwise might not have done," Hill said. "Beginning tomorrow we are in another campaign."
Hill started with an attack on Bullock, whom he called "the candidate of trial lawyers and environmentalists."
All of the GOP candidates campaigned on platforms heavy with pro-business development plans. They engaged in escalating predictions over whose plan would generate the most jobs and expressed varying degrees of antipathy for President Barack Obama's policies.
Stapleton ran a campaign appealing to the "thinking man and thinking woman" who would want a younger alternative with fresh ideas. The 43-year-old investment adviser also went on the attack with a polished television advertisement arguing Hill was a bad choice to take on Bullock because of "baggage" — such as old Martz-era emails that suggested Hill's wife used a position in the administration to get better access for her husband's real estate deals. Hill disputed the suggestions.
Miller sought the support of social conservative and tea party circles. He faced accusations from a former campaign worker that he made several campaign finance infractions. The commissioner of political practices agreed Friday in a late-breaking report that found Miller did break the law with dozens of paperwork mistakes and improper donation amounts.
Livingstone, who moved back home last year to mount the campaign, spent plenty of his own money in the race. He faced skepticism about his background in the counter-terrorism industry that included an episode in which he sought a multi-million dollar payday by helping Moammar Gadhafi find an exit strategy from Libya.