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Tester Takes Montana; Dems Close In on Majority | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Tester Takes Montana; Dems Close In on Majority

Democrat Jon Tester has defeated Montana Republican Conrad Burns, winning the 50th Democratic seat in the Senate.

The Tester victory by a margin of more than 3,000 votes out of a little over 400,000 cast in Montana assures Democrats an even split in the 100-member Senate.

Will they get the 51st seat and a clear majority? Probably.

With Democrat Jim Webb holding a lead of more than 7,000 votes in Virginia over Republican incumbent George Allen, it looks increasingly likely that the seat there will go to the Democrats. Republicans are talking about demanding a recount, but Webb's lead appears to be sufficient to withstand any challenge.

The Tester win is especially impressive, as it comes in a state that not long ago was considered to be reliably red.

Democrats began their climb out of the political wilderness in Montana in 2000, when Democrat Brian Schweitzer mounted a populist challenge to Burns that came close to winning.

Schweitzer ran for and won the governorship in 2004, a year that saw Democrats make major advances in other statewide races and the contest for control of the legislature.

Tester, an organic farmer and state legislator, has been an ally of Schweitzer. But he was not the choice of Washington Democrats to make this year's Senate race. DC Democrats preferred a more centrist contender in the primary, but Tester prevailed by highlighting his antiwar stance, his ethics as opposed to those of Burns -- who was linked to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal -- and his flat-top haircut.

In the general election, Republicans tried to paint Tester as a standard-issue liberal. But it did not sell, in part because the Democrat campaigned as something of a libertarian in civil liberties issues. Accused of plotting to undermine the Patriot Act, Tester responded that he did not want to undermine the measure. Rather, he said, he hoped to repeal it.

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Blunt language and that flat-top haircut trumped the Republican attacks. And the voters of Montana painted a western state blue.

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