CBSN

Democrat Wins Montana Senate Race

Democratic U.S. senate candidate Jon Tester speaks to supporters during his election night party November 7, 2006 in Great Falls, Montana.
GETTY IMAGES/Justin Sullivan
Democrats won a cliffhanger race in Montana on Wednesday that brought them to the brink of control of the Senate, after Americans sick of scandal and weary of war ended the Republican majority in the House.

Early Wednesday afternoon, CBS News projected that Democrat Jon Tester will defeat Montana Republican Sen. Conrad Burns.

Reflecting the redrawn Washington landscape, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld agreed to step down, satisfying Democratic demands. President Bush said he will nominate former CIA Director Robert Gates to succeed Rumsfeld.

Mr. Bush expressed both disappointment and surprise over the election results and said he had called Democratic leaders to personally congratulate them. "Actually, I thought we were going to do fine yesterday," Mr. Bush said. "Shows what I know."

Mr. Bush quipped that he had given House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi the name of a Republican interior decorator to help her pick out drapes for her new meeting room — poking fun at the California Democrat's pre-election remark about having her pick of Capitol suites. Pelosi, D-Calif., is likely to become the first female Speaker of the House in U.S. history.

As to the role played in Tuesday's widespread Republican losses, Mr. Bush said, "I believe Iraq had a lot to do with the election, but I think there were other factors as well." He suggested that a variety of congressional scandals may also have played a role.

With Democrats now assured of 50 Senate seats, the battle for outright control came down to Virginia, where the Democratic candidate, Jim Webb, held a small lead over the incumbent, Republican Sen. George Allen.

For Republicans, it was an election that started out grim and got only grimmer with the new day. First, voters brought down the Republican House majority after 12 years in power and gave Democrats a majority of governorships for the first time in just as long.

Then Senate control began slipping away — the narrow GOP majority ground down to nothing, protected only by Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote if the contest ends at 50-50.

Democrats hoped to shape a 51-49 majority with a victory for Webb, a former Navy secretary under Ronald Reagan. Webb led by fewer than 9,000 votes out of more than 2.3 million cast. With the margin so small and so much on the line, Allen was not conceding. A recount, which would be conducted by a panel of judges, would take weeks.

Electoral officials were canvassing the unofficial results Wednesday, and both parties had teams ready to monitor and intervene in the event of a recount, anticipating the process could stretch into next month.

In Montana, Tester, an organic grain farmer who lost three fingers in a meat grinder, prevailed in a protracted contest with Burns, who was weakened politically by his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Tester held a 3,128-vote lead over Burns with only one county left to count its votes. That county had fewer than 1,000 votes to report. An Associated Press canvass of Montana counties estimated there were not enough provisional ballots still to be counted for Burns to overcome his deficit.

That meant the election of 48 Democratic senators as well as two Democratic-voting Independents — Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

A succession of tainted Republicans lost seats as their leaders lost power, a stinging referendum on the ways of Washington. A large majority of voters surveyed across the country said their disgust with corruption influenced their choice.

Democrats took solid control in the House, rebounding after a dozen years in the minority.

As a result, Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., told fellow Republican lawmakers Wednesday that he does not intend to run for minority leader when Democrats take control of the House in January, officials said.

His decision to step down cleared the way for a likely succession battle. Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the majority leader, is expected to run, and Reps. Mike Pence of Indiana and Joe Barton of Texas have also signaled they may make a bid for leadership positions.

Pelosi said Wednesday that American voters "spoke for change and they spoke for a new direction for all Americans." She said voters specifically demanded a change in course on the war in Iraq and urged Mr. Bush "to listen to the voice of the people."

"Democrats are prepared to lead," she told a news conference in the Capitol. "We are prepared to govern in a bipartisan way."

President Bush called Pelosi with congratulations Wednesday morning, and Pelosi said she told Mr. Bush she was ready to work with him. "The success of the president is always good for the country, and I hope that we could work together for the American people," she said.

In Virginia, Webb, a former Navy secretary under Ronald Reagan, claimed victory on the basis of the tiny lead, but Allen was not conceding.

There are no automatic recounts in Virginia, but state law allows a candidate who finishes a half-percentage point or less behind to request a recount paid for by state and local governments. With a margin greater than that but less than 1 percentage point, the trailing candidate can also seek a recount, but would have to pay the costs if the results are unchanged.

A final count, including all absentee ballots, is expected later Wednesday; no exact numbers on outstanding absentee ballots were immediately available.

But, as CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports that a recount can't formally be requested until the vote is certified on November 27, so the final decision may not be resolved for weeks.