The Montana Room at the Holiday Inn Parkside was the hottest ticket in town Tuesday night as Democrats from around the state packed in to watch the primary election returns with U.S. Senate hopeful Jon Tester.

By the time the sun began to set on the Missoula skyline rumors were swirling that Tester had a three-to-one edge over John Morrison in absentee ballot returns. The throng was both excited and pensive.

“I remember when Schweitzer was beating Burns early on and then we were all crushed when Burns came back and beat him,” recalled one Tester fan.

Longtime politicos, business people, bikers, old hippies, young college Democrats, Missoula’s mayor, a former Democratic primary rival and even a rock star milled about excitedly, all the while keeping one eye on the TV to catch the latest results.

“John Morrison helped me raise money for my campaign…but I would walk across hot coals for this guy,” said one state legislator of Tester.

Around 10 p.m. the first returns started coming in, showing Tester out-pacing Morrison two to one.

The crowd exploded.

Pearl Jam bassist and long-time Tester family friend Jeff Ament said he’d been following the race while traveling with the band, but said he hadn’t had time to really think about it until he got off tour two days ago.

“I was nervous for the first time the other day,” Ament said outside the hotel. “Then last night I just got a good feeling about it.”

“Jon’s worked really hard and gave it his best. That’s all he can do; it’s out of his hands now,” added Ament’s partner Pandora Andre-Beatty.

Both agreed it would be a close race.

But by 10:30 p.m., it appeared that Tester was running away with the election. His lead had doubled, with 45 percent of the precincts in.

Presumed frontrunner Morrison, meanwhile, still hadn’t made an appearance at his campaign headquarters in Helena. KPAX newsman Ian Marquand looked like he was reporting from a funeral, reporting that Morrison was waiting to see some positive numbers before making an appearance. Those numbers never arrived, and when Morrison did finally appear it was to graciously concede the race.

Another Democratic challenger, Paul Richards, who pulled out of the race to throw his support to Tester in the final weeks, received royal treatment at the event, especially from Tester, who thanked his former rival for taking “a year out of his life to affect the political process, and indeed he’s done that.”

“I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure Jon wins in November,” said Richards, beaming between the hugs and thank-yous. Montana Democrats, now faced with the job of unseating Conrad Burns, doubtless second the motion.

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