One of 2018’s most-watched Montana legislative races remained too close to call Wednesday.
As of 7 p.m., the two candidates in Senate District 49 were neck and neck, with Democratic incumbent Diane Sands leading Republican Chase Reynolds by a mere 117 votes out of roughly 9,200. All eight of the district’s precincts were partially reporting.
“I’m feeling good about it,” Sands said. “I’m 58 votes up.”
“I expected a close race,” she continued. “So many Montana races are won by margins like this. It’s why every vote counts.”
Reynolds, too, was taking the wait in stride. “I try not to get too hung up on the numbers right now,” he said. “They are what they are. … We’ll kind of just sit here and wait.”
Despite the Sands-Reynolds race and several others being up in the air Wednesday, Republican majorities appear to be safe in the Montana House and Senate.
The Senate District 49 race had the makings of a one-of-a-kind contest. The district binds together diverse voting demographics, stretching from western Missoula to the Idaho state line. Sands first won its Senate seat by just 35 votes in 2014. This year, she not only faced the challenge of appealing to both urban and rural voters, but also an opponent with star power: Reynolds, a former Griz and NFL running back.
A first-time candidate, Reynolds called for pro-business tax and regulatory policies, easing of housing restrictions, aggressive forest management and natural resource development. Sands, meanwhile, stressed public lands protection, small-scale agriculture, affordable health care and education.
Sands had surmised that Republicans wanted to flip her seat, and predicted a “very major campaign.” It was funded like one. She reported nearly $50,000 in campaign contributions, while Reynolds took in $17,500 (his campaign-finance reporting drew a complaint from Missoula resident Tom Facey, but Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan dismissed it).
Missoula County Elections Administrator Dayna Causby said that after work on the initial count wraps up Thursday, they’ll still have to research the 1,700 provisional ballots. A provisional ballot is used when questions involving a voter’s eligibility must be resolved before the vote can count. Causby said they have until 3 p.m. next Tuesday to sort through those.
After that, the county will canvass — or certify — the election results before sending them to the secretary of state’s office.
Under Montana law, a tie in a state or federal race triggers an automatic recount. Unsuccessful candidates in those races can also request a recount when the margin of defeat is within one-quarter of one percent of all votes cast.
In Tuesday's legislative races, GOP leaders sought to protect their 32-18 majority over Democrats in the Senate, and their 59-41 advantage in the House.
With the votes still being counted on Wednesday, an Associated Press analysis found that Democrats could pick up a couple of seats in each chamber, but not enough to take control from the GOP.
Republican Joe Read picked up a seat for the GOP, House District 93 in western Montana, which is being vacated by Democrat John Fleming.
Lawmakers will travel to Helena on Nov. 14 for orientation and the legislative session is scheduled to begin Jan. 7.