HELENA — Montana voters set the stage Tuesday for a November election that will determine whether a U.S. Senate seat that has been in Democratic hands for a century will stay there after the resignation of six-term Sen. Max Baucus.
U.S. Rep. Steve Daines is leaving his House seat to challenge incumbent Sen. John Walsh, who was appointed in February to replace Baucus. Both easily won their primary elections Tuesday.
The GOP sees Daines as the best chance to win back a seat it hasn't held since 1907.
"This would be historic for Montana, but more importantly, Montana's voice needs to be heard in the U.S. Senate, not the voice of Harry Reid," Daines said Tuesday night, referring to the Democratic Senate majority leader. "I hope to bring that voice to the Senate, a voice that pushes back on the overreach of the federal government."
Daines won the Republican nomination over state Rep. Champ Edmunds and political newcomer Susan Cundiff.
Walsh defeated former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger and Wilsall rancher Dirk Adams, for the Democratic nomination, and his campaign is already in full swing to take on Daines in the Nov. 4 general election.
"We know it's going to be a difficult race," Walsh said. "What I want to do is hold Congressman Daines accountable. ... I'm going to try to convince Montanans that his actions have been irresponsible with respect to standing up for Montanans."
After the campaigns reached their peak last week with stops across the state, the candidates settled in to await the results. Daines spent Tuesday in Bozeman with his family.
"The consistent theme that I heard all over the state, whether in eastern Montana or western Montana, is the intrusive overreach of the federal government into our lives in Montana," Daines said.
The Senate race is at the top of the ticket, but Montana voters also picked between party nominees for the U.S. House seat that Daines is vacating, along with 125 state legislative seats. There also are 11 judicial races and two Public Service Commission positions at stake.
The polls closed across the state at 8 p.m. In Helena, election judge Sheena Wilson said voter turnout at the civic center that houses six voter precincts had been slow and steady all day.
One voter, Joan Duncan of Helena, said she never misses an election and her main interest Tuesday was the Democratic Senate primary. She's a Walsh supporter.
"I particularly feel real good with John," she said.
The biggest name in Tuesday's elections might not even be on the ballot.
Max Baucus was to retire after 36 years in the U.S. Senate when his term expired in January 2015, but he resigned in February to become ambassador to China. That paved the way for Bullock to appoint Walsh, who was his lieutenant governor at the time.
Republicans cried foul, saying Baucus' resignation and Walsh's appointment were orchestrated to give the Democrats an advantage against Daines and undermined the primary elections.
Bullock has repeatedly said the decision to appoint Walsh was his alone, and he believed Walsh to be the best person for the appointment.
Baucus also looms over the U.S. House race, where his longtime aide, John Lewis, is one of two candidates seeking the Democratic nomination. Lewis has raised more than $755,000 in his first run for political office as the Democrats seek to take back a congressional seat they haven't held since U.S. Rep. Pat Williams left in 1997.
Lewis faces former Montana House Speaker John Driscoll, who hasn't taken any campaign contributions. Driscoll said he will take contributions for the general election if he wins the primary.
The winner faces the Republican nominee in a close five-way primary. The GOP candidates are state Sen. Elsie Arntzen, state Sen. Matt Rosendale, former state Sen. Corey Stapleton, Helena businessman Drew Turiano and former state Sen. Ryan Zinke of Whitefish.
Associated Press writer Lisa Baumann contributed to this report.