The most expensive midterm in Montana history is finally over, but not before extending past Election Day into the late morning of Nov. 7. It would take that long to decide the winner of the race between incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale.
President Donald Trump, who can brag about the GOP’s gains in the U.S. Senate (although his party lost the House), really wanted this seat. He campaigned in Montana four times, railing against Tester. His son, vice president, and other Republican senators did the same.
Late into the night and into the next morning, at first glance it appeared Rosendale was well positioned to topple the incumbent. The Republican led by about 4,000 votes with 85 percent reporting. Still, I would be surprised if Tester’s camp was ever that worried.
This race was always going to be relatively close. Tester won by about 3,000 votes in 2006 and 8,000 in 2012. But as the first Montana numbers began trickling in last week, there were immediate red flags for the challenger, none bigger than the margin in the most populous county in the state, Yellowstone, which is home to Billings.
That county, like Flathead, is traditionally one of Montana’s metropolitan conservative strongholds. Donald Trump won Yellowstone with 60 percent of the vote in 2016. Yet Tester has performed surprisingly strong there, essentially tying his opponent, former Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg, during the 2012 general election.
This year, even with record turnout for a Montana midterm, the Billings market favored Rosendale by just 4 percentage points. Yes, that’s more than six years prior, but if Missoula and increasingly liberal Gallatin (home to Bozeman) were also experiencing high turnout, it wouldn’t nearly be enough.
It short: They were. And it wasn’t.
Home to the state’s two largest universities, the two counties were flooded with voters. In Bozeman, election officials said the last person cast a ballot at 11 p.m. And in Missoula, absentee votes alone eclipsed the total votes it saw in the 2014 midterm. And as Tuesday turned into Wednesday, there were still tens of thousands of ballots from each county outstanding — delays caused by technical malfunctions and the sheer amount of voters registering on Election Day.
When just a portion of those numbers was finally tallied, the race would soon be called for Tester. And he can credit that not only to running up the score in the counties more often friendly to Democrats, but also to conservative counties not running up the score too high against him.
While Tester held his own in Yellowstone, comparatively, he performed even better in the Flathead. In 2012, Rehberg trounced Tester locally by 18 percentage points. This year, Tester was trounced again, but by a smaller margin — 15 percentage points.
The increased turnout resulted in left-leaning counties swinging way further left. Gallatin, which just two years prior preferred Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump by less than 1 percentage point, favored Tester this year by 21 percentage points. In Missoula, Clinton bested Trump by 15 percentage points in 2016; Tester won the county by a staggering 37 percentage points this year.
The statewide result was Tester’s largest margin of victory ever — 16,000 votes — and marked the first time he garnered more than 50 percent of the vote. In the end, it wasn’t that close.