- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 9, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s successful re-election bid was one bright spot for Democrats who learned Wednesday as the final results came in that Republican candidates swept the four other statewide offices and held on to the state’s only U.S. House seat.

Bullock defeated Republican challenger Greg Gianforte in a close race that was not called until Wednesday morning. Voters decided to stick with Bullock after an expensive and bruising campaign in which the candidates’ visions for the state’s future were often overshadowed by personal attacks and insults against each other.

Bullock, speaking to supporters in Helena, called on leaders to rise above an election marked by toxicity, fear, incivility and personal destruction.

“I’m optimistic that our leaders, Democrats and Republicans, can still rise above that toxicity to demonstrate to those we represent that we’re individually and collectively better than all this,” Bullock said.

Gianforte released a statement congratulating Bullock and the Republican statewide office winners.

“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,” he said. “Nothing has changed that for me.”

Republican candidates won three statewide offices that are currently held by Democrats: secretary of state, state auditor and superintendent of public instruction.

Republican Attorney General Tim Fox, the fifth statewide officeholder, easily won re-election against former Democratic legislator Larry Jent.

Incumbent U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Whitefish Republican, defeated Democratic challenger Denise Juneau, the outgoing superintendent of public instruction.

Republicans also held their majorities in the state House and Senate.

Bullock, the state’s attorney general before being elected in 2012, framed himself as a coalition builder and a champion of protecting public access to lands and waterways. Gianforte, a conservative software entrepreneur who was making his first run for office, hoped to unseat Bullock by promising voters to bring high-paying jobs and cutting taxes.

One issue that’s dogged Bullock is the failure to pass legislation to pay for infrastructure improvements in eastern Montana, which has groaned under the weight of growth spurred by the Bakken oil boom in North Dakota.

Perhaps as a result, most voters in eastern Montana threw their support behind Gianforte, while Bullock’s support came mainly from the state’s large cities in western Montana.

Bullock previously said that upon re-election, passing an infrastructure bill would be one of his top priorities early in the 2017 session, which gets underway in January.

In the U.S. House election, Zinke prevailed in a race fueled by millions of dollars from out-of-state donors and political committees, helping make it the most expensive House election in Montana’s recent history.

Zinke said he would represent all Montanans upon his return to Congress, and vowed to use his military experience to “evaluate things based on their merits and not their political origin.”

After previously expressing interest in serving in the cabinet of a Donald Trump administration, Zinke did not explicitly reject that possibility Tuesday night. But he said that for now he was happy to be a congressman.

In the statewide races, former Republican lawmaker Corey Stapleton of Billings defeated outgoing Democratic state auditor Monica Lindeen to win the open secretary of state seat.

Jesse Laslovich, Lindeen’s chief legal counsel, had hoped to replace his boss as auditor but was defeated by Republican state Sen. Matt Rosendale.

Republican state Sen. Elsie Arntzen beat Democrat Melissa Romano, a teacher who was making her first run for office, to become the next superintendent of public instruction.

In the nonpartisan state Supreme Court race, District Judge Dirk Sandefur defeated University of Montana adjunct law professor Kristen Juras.

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