BILLINGS – Steve Bullock won the race for Montana attorney general early Wednesday, defeating Republican Tim Fox in a close race that ensured Democratic control of the statewide office.
With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Bullock was leading 52 percent to Fox’s 48 percent. The difference was about 20,700 votes, according to unofficial results.
Fox conceded the race to Bullock at about 1 a.m. MST, after Bullock built a lead that Fox campaign manager Chuck Denowh said was insurmountable.
“Certainly it’s disappointing,” Fox said Wednesday. “I wish Steve Bullock all the best. We ran a great campaign and worked hard, and at the end of the day I think we can hold our heads high.”
Bullock did not immediately return phone messages seeking comment Wednesday.
Bullock replaces Democratic Attorney General Mike McGrath, who was barred by term limits from re-election. McGrath was elected late Tuesday as chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court.
In the attorney general’s race, both candidates and their parties spent a record amount of cash. It was one of the most fiercely contested races in Montana this year, as Democrats sought to keep control of an office they’ve held since 1992 and Republicans looked to stem a series of losses in statewide races.
Bullock, 42, is a former assistant attorney general with a solo law practice. He ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2000.
Fox, 53, is a former state Department of Environmental Quality attorney who now works at a private law firm. This was his first bid for office.
The last days leading up to the election brought a flurry of negative ads, largely funded by the state Republican and Democratic parties. Democrats tried to portray Fox as inexperienced and with a spotty work record, while Republicans depicted Bullock as not taking a tough enough stance on sex offenders.
The ads featured prominently in voter Mindy Naylor’s support for Fox. Naylor, 32, a florist from Billings, credited the Republican with helping force state officials to post missing photos onto a sex offender database.
“I was attracted by what he (Fox) said about sex predators. How can I, as a parent, protect my children if there’s no pictures on the Web site?” Naylor said Tuesday.
But another Billings voter, 56-year-old Sherry Sperle, said the Republican ads had driven her away from Fox because they were so negative.
“I picked Bullock,” said Sperle, a Republican who works as a financial counselor at a local hospital. “I don’t believe he doesn’t care about sex offenders. He’s got three kids — of course he does.”
Fox said Wednesday that he was proud of the way the campaign was conducted.
“A friend of mine wrote me an e-mail and told me he realized politics is a contact sport,” the Republican said. “I have no regrets.”
On the campaign trail, Bullock pledged to fight prescription drug abuse, protect fishing access and more aggressively prosecute scams against the elderly and sex crimes against children.
Bullock questioned his opponent’s qualifications and said his own four-year stint as a lawyer in the attorney general’s office made him better suited for the job.
Fox said he would focus on shielding gun rights and cracking down on sexual offenders. He also promised to open up more public land to energy development through the attorney general’s seat on the state Land Board.
Montana’s attorney general earns $89,600 a year.
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