HELENA - Butte attorney Bob Kelleher staked out a surprising lead in early returns Tuesday evening in the crowded Republican primary for U.S. Senate, besting five other candidates for the nomination to challenge incumbent Democrat Max Baucus this fall.
And in the Democratic U.S. House primary, another dark-horse candidate, former state Public Service Commissioner John Driscoll, was leading Helena attorney Jim Hunt in early returns. The winner will challenge U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont.
With 49 percent of the precincts counted, Kelleher led the six-person Republican Senate primary field with 36 percent of the vote. State Rep. Michael Lange of Billings had 23 percent and facilities designer Kirk Bushman of Billings had 22 percent.
Patty Lovaas, a Missoula accountant, was third with 10 percent; truck driver Anton Pearson of St. Regis had 6 percent and Shay Joshua Garnett, who withdrew from the race but whose name remained on the ballot, had 3 percent.
The winner of the primary will take on Baucus, who ran unopposed in the Democratic primary and who is a heavy favorite to win re-election.
In the House race, Driscoll, who didn't campaign or raise money, was winning 48 percent of the vote to Hunt's 43 percent, with 48 percent of the precincts reporting.
Richey farmer Bob Candee was third with 8 percent.
The winner will challenge Rehberg, who's up for a fifth consecutive term as Montana's only U.S. House member. Rehberg, favored to win re-election, was unopposed in the Republican primary.
The GOP Senate primary is considered a wide-open race, as none of the candidates is well-known among Republican voters. Kelleher has run for office more than any other candidate, as a Democrat and Republican, but hasn't won an election since 1972.
The winner has the unenviable task of taking on Baucus, who has more than $6 million in his campaign fund and already has broken fundraising records for a Montana race.
Lange, 47, has represented a west Billings district in the state House since 2003. He was the Republican majority leader in the 2007 session before being stripped of that title by fellow Republicans in May.
GOP House members who favored Lange's removal from the post said they were unhappy that he worked with Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer's administration to try to craft budget-and-tax compromises before a May special session of the Legislature.
Some also said they were embarrassed by Lange's profane tirade against the governor two weeks earlier, a speech caught on videotape before a meeting of House Republican members.
Bushman, 41, had the support of many state Republican Party insiders despite his inexperience as a candidate. He traveled the state to meet with GOP donors and was the only Republican U.S. Senate candidate who traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Republican leaders and strategists.
Bushman has made Social Security and Medicare reform a keystone of his campaign, saying that Congress must face the fact that these programs can't be afforded in their current form.
Social Security helped his family survive after his father died when Bushman was 16, and Bushman says he wants to make sure the program survives. One of 12 children, Bushman works as an industrial facilities designer for a Billings engineering firm.
Lovaas, 57, owns an accounting business in Missoula, and said during the campaign that she could run stronger against Baucus in the "liberal strongholds" of western Montana. It was her first run for office in Montana.
Pearson, 64, who delivers wrecked vehicles to steel-recycling sites in Canada and Utah, ran as an outspoken social conservative who wanted to outlaw abortion and boost natural-resource industries in Montana, such as timber, oil, gas and mining.
Kelleher, 85, is a perennial candidate who's run unsuccessfully for governor, president, U.S. House and U.S. Senate, most often as a Democrat but recently under the Green Party and Republican banners.
He favors converting the United States to a parliamentary system of government, giving one party control of the government and the ability to instigate large-scale reforms that are needed.
In the House race, Hunt, 54, was the first Democratic candidate in the race and ran by far the most visible, active campaign.
A private attorney and the son of former Montana Supreme Court Justice William Hunt, Hunt is making his first run for public office. He's also a retired lieutenant colonel in the Montana Army National Guard.
Driscoll, 61, and Candee, 65, filed a few days before the deadline and ran decidedly low-key campaigns. In fact, Driscoll said he didn't intend to campaign at all, and was offering himself as a choice to voters who wanted someone without financial ties to any interest.
Candee, a farmer who gives annual scholarships to graduates of local high schools, promoted his idea of having members of Congress meet periodically in rural areas around the country, to "bring democracy to the people."