HELENA, Mont. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester prevailed Wednesday in a tight re-election battle, beating back nearly two years of attacks for his support of some Obama administration policies to hand Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg his first election loss since 1996.
The two campaigns, and their third-party allies, flooded Montana airwaves with unprecedented spending on attack ads as both parties considered the race crucial for control of the U.S. Senate. Democrats kept their majority on Tuesday with victories in other states. A third of the chamber's seats were up for election.
Tester was vindicated in his belief that Montana voters wouldn't go for the attacks against him. With most results in Wednesday, Tester was ahead 49 percent to 45 percent.
The Big Sandy farmer rode to victory on his everyman appeal and workman-like approach to the job, overcoming a political environment that Republicans felt favored them. Rehberg gambled the time was ripe for Republicans to take back a Senate seat his friend, Conrad Burns, only narrowly lost six years ago to Tester.
Like then, this race was tight, and the most expensive race in Montana history finished as close as it started.
Rehberg issued a statement congratulating Tester and thanking his own supporters.
"The voters of our state have spoken, and I respect their decision," said Rehberg. "Sen. Tester and I share an abiding love for Montana and America, a value which transcends political party or disagreements on matters of policy. I congratulate Jon on his victory in this hard-fought campaign."
Tester did better in urban areas like Butte than he did in 2006, and he closed the gap in many rural areas. Unlike six years ago, he carried his very rural home of Choteau County. He also fared well in Rehberg's home county of Yellowstone, where the Tester campaign attacked Rehberg for filing a lawsuit against the Billings city fire department over its handling of a wildfire on his property.
Another key development was the performance of Libertarian Dan Cox, who pulled in more than 6 percent of the vote according to early returns — much of it likely coming from Rehberg's conservative flank.
During the final days of the campaign, Tester allies unapologetically aired an advertisement that sought to convince conservatives to vote for Cox over Rehberg.
Rehberg abandoned a safe congressional seat he had held for more than a decade to take on Tester. Money flowed into the state in record levels — much of it tying Tester to President Barack Obama.
Tester insisted the tactic wouldn't work, arguing Montanans would appreciate his work for solutions to tough problems like health care for veterans and farm programs.
Tester mixed and mingled Tuesday night at a Great Falls convention room before going to bed at around 2 a.m. hours before the race was called.
"As you know six years ago we were in a very similar situation," Tester said. "Quite frankly, before this night started, we thought we were gonna be in this situation where the votes were gonna be coming in throughout the night."
The mood was starkly different at a Rehberg event in Billings, where most supporters left by midnight Tuesday. Rehberg didn't appear, and reporters outnumbered supporters before the bunting was pulled down and campaign operatives retreated in hope that the numbers would shift their direction.
Rehberg accused Tester of failing to live up to an original promise of independence by voting with Obama on many key issues. Tester promised to make a stalled bipartisan budget and tax deal his top priority if re-elected. And he attacked Rehberg as a selfish career politician with few results to show for it.
Tester was a state senator before he was elected to the Senate.
This year's race marked Rehberg's second run at the Senate. He fell short in a 1996 challenge to Baucus.