GREAT FALLS – Republican challenger Matt Rosendale clung to a narrow lead over Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester early Wednesday morning in Montana’s marquee Senate contest, but tens of thousands of votes remained to be counted in several major cities.
At 6 a.m., Rosendale led by 3,000 votes, according to totals compiled by the website Politico, with 48.9 percent of the vote, compared to Tester’s 48.2 percent. Libertarian Rick Breckenridge was holding steady at just under 3 percent.
The outcome, however, was far from settled, as thousands of votes had yet to be counted in Bozeman, Billings, Missoula and Great Falls, and several other smaller counties.
Tester, who led in earlier returns but saw his lead slip away after midnight, told supporters late Tuesday night that he felt confident of victory.
“I feel absolutely, unequivocally very good about where we’re at right now,” he said to the crowd at his election-night party at the Holiday Inn in Great Falls. “And I will tell you that I look forward to sharing with you tomorrow some very good news.
“But I can’t do it tonight. And I can’t do it tonight because we have to wait for all of the votes to be counted.”
It was unclear early Wednesday how many votes remained in which counties. However, figures on the Montana secretary of state’s website indicated that at least 16,000 votes had been uncounted in Gallatin County and 17,000 in Missoula County. Both are considered counties where Tester is likely to do well.
Yet Yellowstone County and Billings, where Republicans tend to do better, also had several thousand votes uncounted as of Wednesday morning.
Rosendale, the state auditor, told his supporters at a Helena election-night party Tuesday that the race wouldn’t be decided until Wednesday.
“It looks like it’s going to be a long night,” he said. “They’re going to be driggling and driving votes in for quite some time now.”
Tester, a farmer from Big Sandy, led early Tuesday evening as the first round of absentee votes were counted in major cities, but the race slowly tightened as more and more returns came in from rural counties, where Rosendale did well.
Tester, however, led in all of the state’s major cities except Kalispell and Billings, and led in a handful of smaller counties as well, such as Hill and Park and counties with substantial Native American populations.
The Senate race is the most expensive single electoral contest in Montana history, with more than $60 million spent by the candidates and outside groups.
President Trump also visited Montana four times since July to campaign for Rosendale and against Tester, including a stop at the Bozeman airport on Saturday.