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Elsewhere, there were few surprises on election night with governors' contests. Eight incumbents were reelected, five of them Republicans. And a favored GOP candidate won in Utah.
Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte was poised Tuesday night to become the state's first Republican governor in 16 years, defeating Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney in what was the nation's most competitive gubernatorial battle this election cycle.
In another closely watched contest, in Missouri, Republican Gov. Mike Parson was on track to rack up a strong win against his Democratic challenger, state auditor Nicole Galloway.
The Associated Press called the Montana race for Gianforte around 10:40 p.m. Mountain time. With about 20% of precincts reporting full or partial results, and 369,487 votes tallied in the state, Gianforte was up by 22,836 votes, with 51% of the electorate. Cooney was at 45%.
Heading into Election Day, Republicans controlled 26 governors' offices in states across the U.S. and Democrats 24.
A win by Gianforte means that count will shift by one in favor of the GOP. It also means Republicans are on the cusp of gaining a “trifecta” in Montana, with control of the governor's mansion and both chambers of the state legislature, where they already have majorities.
The state's current Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, is term-limited and competing for a U.S. Senate seat.
Gianforte, a successful businessman who founded a technology company in Montana that was later acquired by Oracle Corp., is one of the wealthier members of Congress.
He has voiced support for lower taxes and easing state permitting for gas, oil, mining and timber projects in Montana. Gianforte, who describes himself as an ally of President Trump, has also stressed the importance of “personal responsibility” as opposed to state mandates when it comes to controlling the nation's coronavirus outbreak.
Cooney has had a long career in the public sector, serving previously as Montana's secretary of state and Senate president and holding leadership roles in the state's department of labor.
In Missouri, Parson had claimed 60% of the vote as of around 10:30 p.m. local time, state figures showed. The Associated Press had called the race in his favor about an hour earlier. Galloway, currently the only Democrat to hold statewide elected office in Missouri, was trailing badly with just 37% of the vote.
During her campaign, Galloway argued that Parson had botched the state’s coronavirus response. Parson, who stepped up as lieutenant governor into the governor’s seat in 2018 after Republican Eric Greitens resigned amid a scandal, focused on pro-law enforcement messaging and has been raising concerns about violent crime in cities.
Nine other governors' races broke mostly along expected lines on Election Day, according to the Associated Press.
Republican incumbents retained their seats in five states—Eric Holcomb in Indiana, Doug Burgum in North Dakota, Chris Sununu in New Hampshire, Phil Scott in Vermont and Jim Justice in West Virginia. In Utah, Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the favorite to replace GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, who wasn't running for reelection, won in his race against a long shot Democratic candidate.
Three Democratic governors were up for reelection—in Delaware, North Carolina and Washington state.
Delaware Gov. John Carney came out on top in his reelection bid. So did North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, according to AP. Around 11:30 p.m. Eastern time, with 99% of precincts reporting, Cooper had 51.5% of the vote, and GOP challenger Lt. Gov. Dan Forest 47%.
In Washington state, the Associated Press called the race around 8 p.m. Pacific time for Gov. Jay Inslee, who was running for a third term. State results updated around 9:30 p.m. local time showed Inslee with nearly 60% of the vote and GOP candidate Loren Culp, the police chief in a small town in eastern Washington, with around 40%.
Editor's note: This story was updated late Tuesday night with the latest results from the Montana governor's race.
Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.