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Republican Bowen Greenwood is holding the lead in preliminary election returns for Montana’s clerk of Supreme Court as of 8:50 a.m. Wednesday, with roughly 55 percent of precincts fully reporting.

Greenwood had 54 percent of the vote to 41 percent of his main opponent, Democrat Rex Renk. Libertarian Roger Roots had 6 percent in the early returns.

Greenwood, who was at the Helena election watch party for Senate candidate Matt Rosendale, said others in the room felt optimistic about his chances.

“You know, I feel good about my chances,” he said, adding, “we’ve got a long night in front of us.”

Greenwood was speaking just before 10 p.m. when he had a roughly 4 percentage point lead over Renk.

Renk, who was watching election returns with the Lewis and Clark County Democrats at Helena restaurant Bert and Ernie’s, said at about 10 p.m. there were still plenty of votes to be counted. 

“There’s a lot of votes from many, many counties that haven’t come in,” Renk said. “So we’re very hopeful and we’re just waiting to see how it all turns out.”

Renk added that the clerk’s race was difficult to campaign for, but he felt he had done his best to reach voters and to distinguish himself from Greenwood.

“I campaigned very hard,” Renk said. “I traveled around the state, you know, raised more money, did radio buys, did digital work. And so, you know, I feel very good and very confident about the campaign that we have run.”

The typically low-profile partisan race received more attention this year after concerns that the office could be abused for political gain by keeping some groups more informed than others about what the court is considering.

The Supreme Court clerk maintains files, compiles statistics for the court, ensures public access to court materials and swears in new lawyers. The six-year term pays $103,690 a year, and there are no education requirements.

Greenwood, communications director for the Public Service Commission, is endorsed by former GOP Senate candidate and former Yellowstone County District Court Judge Russ Fagg.

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Renk, the current deputy clerk, is endorsed by seven former Montana Supreme Court justices, a former clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court, active clerks of 16 district courts in Montana and a retired district court judge.

Roots is an attorney who has argued before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The clerk's race drew scrutiny after a fundraising letter surfaced telling prospective supporters of Greenwood that the clerk is “uniquely positioned to go the extra mile to encourage participation” in Supreme Court cases. The letter came from former Yellowstone County District Court Judge Russ Fagg, also a Republican candidate in the primary for U.S. Senate this spring.

Fagg cited I-186, an initiative on the ballot this fall aimed at reducing mining pollution. He said no amicus briefs had been filed with the Supreme Court in support of the mining industry on its challenge to the initiative.

Former Justice Patricia Cotter responded to Fagg’s letter and to statements made by Greenwood supporting the letter. Cotter wrote an opinion piece in The Billings Gazette in which she said she was concerned Greenwood would turn the office into a “political fiefdom” to benefit Republicans.

In the primary, Greenwood received 124,567 votes to Renk’s 95,361. Roots received no votes because the Libertarians do not have a primary ballot, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

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