Incumbent Gov. Steve Bullock, who won re-election Wednesday morning with 50 percent of the vote to Republican challenger Greg Gianforte's 46 percent, called Wednesday on the state's lawmakers to rise above the divisive tone that made this year's election, both at a state and national level, unlike anything seen before.
In a passionate and emotional speech to supporters gathered at the same Helena hotel where many lingered until just after midnight, Bullock said he was humbled, proud, inspired and optimistic after hearing the results. He touched on nature of his campaign against Gianforte, which grew increasingly hostile as it drew to an end.
"It may be a challenging time in this experiment called representative democracy, what with the toxicity, the money, the fear, the lack of civility, the innuendo, the politics at times of personal destruction, but I'm optimistic that our leaders, Democrats and Republicans, still rise above that toxicity to demonstrate to those who we represent that we're individually and we're collectively better than that. That we're elected to inspire the next generation and to be role models."
Bullock on Wednesday had 250,570 votes to Gianforte's 231,895, a difference of 18,675. Libertarian Ted Dunlap had 3 percent of the total with 100 percent of precincts reporting and voter turnout around 73 percent, in unofficial results.
The governor also addressed Republican Donald J. Trump's victory in the presidential election and emphasized that Montana can stand above the increasingly crude nature of politics.
"I'm also optimistic that if some of our leaders fall short, I'm optimistic that our friends and our neighbors, our fellow Montanans, will demand better of them, they'll demand that we act as if our children and our grandchildren are watching, because they are. I'm optimistic that at least here in Montana we can be a shining example of how the political system is supposed to work."
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton lost by 21 percentage points in Montana, yet Bullock was able to win because he's well-liked, said Carroll College associate professor of political science Jeremy Johnson.
"It does show that he was popular that he was able to run so far ahead of the presidential ticket."
Gianforte, a Bozeman businessman who started a software company he later sold to Oracle for almost $2 billion, called Bullock a little after 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, Bullock said, to congratulate him and wish him luck in the next four years.
"While this is an incredibly close race, the voters of Montana appear to have spoken," Gianforte said Wednesday morning in a press release. "I knew taking on an incumbent would be a challenge, but I decided to run for office because I believe in the potential of Montana and in all Montanans. Nothing has changed that for me. Even though we did not prevail, you have my commitment that I will continue to work to create better outcomes for all Montanans.”
Gianforte also thanked everyone who voted for him and worked on his campaign.
Bullock was the lone bright spot for Montana Democrats, who lost in all the other statewide races. Republican Tim Fox retained his post as attorney general in a race against Democrat Larry Jent, while Republicans Elsie Arntzen, Corey Stapleton and Matt Rosendale beat out, respectively, Democrats Melissa Romano for superintendent of public instruction, Monica Lindeen for secretary of state and Matt Rosendale for state auditor. Early results show Republicans gained a few seats in the state Legislature, which was already mostly Republican in both the House and Senate, as well.
Bullock's success paired with the defeat of other statewide Democrats could either show that Montanans think he's doing a good job or they think the division of power between Republicans and Democrats is good for the state, said University of Montana political researcher and journalism professor Lee Banville.
The governor played down the party divide, saying he expects everyone to work together.
"Each of the other statewides that just got elected, I count on them to help be an example of how to get things done. I expect our leaders to come together and do the right things for Montanans." He said last session the Legislature came together to pass Medicare expansion and sweeping campaign finance reforms, as well as sage grouse legislation and water compacts.
Nationally, Bullock said it's his job to stand up to Trump "to make sure our Montana values, our interests and our needs are being heard. Whoever is president, my job is the same."
Carroll College associate political science professor Jeremy Johnson said Wednesday that with Republican victories across the nation and at the federal level, Bullock will stand alone more than he has in the past.
"He will serve as essentially the only check in Montana to oppose various positions that he might disagree with," Johnson said.
The incumbent is also facing a Legislature with several members who during the election questioned Bullock's ethical compass and called for investigations into his use of the state plane while attending campaign events that coincided with conducting state business, payments of nearly $1 million to former employees and claims of fraud and retaliation against whistle-blowers in the Department of Health and Human Services.
When asked what he expects to come of these calls for investigation, Bullock said "you'd have to talk to (the legislators requesting them) about that."
The intense buzz around the calls for investigations could die down with the end of the election, Banville said. There might not be a payoff for pursuing Bullock now that the session is over.
"The question would be, what's the benefit of that. If you do that you still have to work with the guy if you want to pass anything. You may do it just because you feel that level of outrage, but I think it's much more of a politically risky move."
Key counties that Bullock won include Missoula (65-31), Lewis and Clark (60-37), Cascade (53-43), Silver Bow (70-26) and Gallatin (55-40). While he lost Yellowstone County, the state's most populous, 47 to 48 percent, it was only by 498 votes.
Bullock did 3 percentage points better than in 2012 in Gallatin County and Gianforte did 7 worse that Republican Rick Hill, who lost to Bullock that year. Gallatin County is Gianforte's home county. Banville said the region is becoming more and more critical in the path to victory.
Part of Gianforte's loss could be his emphasis on eastern Montana, which led him to not spend enough time in counties where he needed a stronger showing.
"Pitting one side of the state against the other, saying the more populated side of the state is getting too much stuff, that may have dampened some people's enthusiasm for him," Banville said.
Bullock said he will reach out to that eastern half of the state by passing an infrastructure bill, something that failed in the last two sessions. "I'm going to be asking the Legislature to make that one of the first things we do, not one of the last."
While Gianforte didn't say Wednesday what his future political aspirations are, Banville said he doesn't expect him to disappear, possibly running against U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in four years.
"I would be surprised if we don't see Gianforte again," Banville said. "He spent a lot of money, ran a really intense campaign, almost knocked off a popular incumbent governor. That's no small task."
Bullock on Wednesday said his immediate plans were to get his kids back to school, have lunch with his wife, Lisa, and possibly take a nap after staying up until almost 4:30 a.m. watching results come in.