The candidates went to bed on election night with the results too close to call. At one point overnight, Gianforte had a slight lead. But when the race was called, Bullock won the seat by about 12,000 votes. Some votes were still being counted as of Wednesday afternoon.
His supporters gathered in Helena when the news broke, again rallying in the Great Northern Hotel where they had waited for results to come in the night before.
Bullock’s wife, Lisa, rarely heard from on the campaign trail, was first to speak to the crowd.
"And I’m speechless. Just genuine gratitude. And it is with the upmost humility that I get to announce, Governor Steve Bullock."
On the day after the election, Governor Bullock was a lonely messenger of good news for Montana Democrats. Republicans have a chance to sweep every other statewide office. And Congressman Ryan Zinke defended his seat against challenger Democrat Denise Juneau.
Bullock hugged his wife after she introduced him, thanking her, and their kids, for bearing the uncomfortable attention of the public eye.
"I’m so proud of the public servants that have joined me in this journey. On the difference you all have made in the lives of Montanans all across the state. In how each and every one of wakes up each day without the regard of politics or personal agenda. And how you govern with decency."
Bullock thanked his supporters and volunteers for their work over the more than yearlong campaign. And then his victory speech moved to acknowledging the disappointment and frustration felt by many watchers of this year’s at times messy political jousts.
"It may be a challenging time for this experiment called representative democracy. What with the toxicity, the money, the fear, the lack of civility, the innuendo. The politics at times of personal destruction. But I’m optimistic that our leaders, Democrats and Republicans, can still rise above that toxicity. Can demonstrate to those that we represent that we are individually, and we’re collectively, better than this. That we’re elected to inspire the next generation, and to be role models."
The Associated Press reports that Republican leaders say Bullock’s administration will be forced to shift politically in their direction. The GOP picked up at least three seats in the state Senate, and will maintain a strong majority in the state House, despite losing at least two seats there.
But in a press conference after his victory speech, Bullock said his administration will continue to work as effective policy makers in his second term.
"Montana is the state where we brought Democrats and Republicans together to expand health care and to pass one of the best campaign disclosure laws in the nation, to grapple with difficult issues from sage grouse to water compacts. So from that perspective, how I’ve governed, I’ve also sought to run for office. So I’ll leave it to folks like to say what lessons can be learned. But I’m happy Montanans have placed their trust in me."
Bullock’s says getting an infrastructure bill passed during the session this winter is a top priority. Attempts at that failed in 2015.
Bullock won far fewer counties than his Republican opponent Greg Gianforte. He won larger urban areas and counties near Indian reservations. Gianforte took most of eastern and rural Montana.
Gianforte, a software entrepreneur from Bozeman, ran on the promise to bring high-paying jobs to the state and cut taxes. He often criticized Governor Bullock for what he called a lack of accountability in the state government.
The Republican contender emailed the press a concession statement a few hours after the race was called.
"I’d like to congratulate Governor Bullock. While this an incredibly close race, the voters of Montana appear to have spoken. I’d also like to thank all of our incredible volunteers and supporters in all 56 counties. Last night was a great night for America, and for getting our country back on track. Congrats also to our Land Board candidates – Tim Fox, Corey Stapleton, Matt Rosendale, and Elsie Arntzen. I knew taking on an incumbent would be a challenge, but I decided to run for office because I believe in the potential in Montana and in all Montanans. Nothing has changed that for me. Even though we did not prevail, you have my commitment that I will continue to work to create better outcomes for all Montanans."
With Steve Bullock’s win, Democrats extend their control over Montana’s Governor’s Office to 16 consecutive years.