Montana House Hangs on Handful of Votes

By: - November 8, 2004 12:00 am

The nation’s last unresolved contest for control of a state legislature is in Montana, where a third-party candidate holds a one-vote margin over his Democratic rival and the outcome hangs on a handful of unopened ballots.

If the Democrat wins, the two major parties will split the Montana House with 50 members each, forcing the GOP to share power in the chamber. If not, Republicans will retain control with 50 members, to 49 for Democrats, and there will be a lone third-party legislator.

The man who may cost Democrats an equal share of state representatives is Constitution Party candidate Rick Jore, who collected 1,556 votes to Democrat Jeanne Windham’s 1,555 on Nov. 2. But five provisional ballots, cast by voters whose registrations were in question, will be opened at 3 p.m. Monday, Nov. 8, and could determine the winner of the seat.

“And people say ‘one vote doesn’t matter,'” said Tim Storey, an elections expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Well one vote does matter, because it will determine control of the Montana House and what happens with Montana public policy in state government,” he said.

A victory for Jore actually would return him to the Montana House, where he served three terms as a Republican. He switched to the Constitution Party in 2000 after losing faith in the GOP’s ability to limit the scope of government, he told in a telephone interview.

Jore lost his re-election bid in 2000 by 54 votes and lost another House campaign in 2002.

But since his narrow victory this year, the GOP has taken a new interest in Jore, who may have the power to derail their leadership. “I’m being called by the Republicans,” he said. “They’re very interested and supportive.”

If he wins, Jore said he would be more likely to work with his former party than the Democrats — if the terms are right. “I’m going to make sure they make some concessions,” he said.

Brad Martin, director of the state Democratic Party, predicted that the provisional ballots will break for Windham, the Democrat. But he said there is likely to be a recount in any case.

The developing story in the Montana House comes on top of big news on election night out of the Montana Senate, where Democrats took back control by capturing six GOP-controlled seats for a 27-23 majority. The previous state Senate makeup was 29 Republicans to 21 Democrats. In addition, Democrats took control of the governorship for the first time in 16 years with the victory of rancher Brian Schweitzer over Montana’s Secretary of State Bob Brown (R).

“Right here in the home state of President Bush’s (national) campaign manager (former Republican Montana Gov. Marc Racicot),” gloated Martin, the Democrat.

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