HELENA, Mont. — U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns conceded defeat to Jon Tester on Thursday, acknowledging that a tight election had gone to the Democrats' favor, Burns' campaign told The Associated Press.
Burns, a three-term senator whose campaign was troubled by verbal gaffes and voter discontent, congratulated Tester in a phone call that the Democrat — recognizable for his flattop hair cut — received while at a Great Falls barber shop.
"I stand ready to help as Montana transitions to a new United States Senator," Burns said in a statement provided to the AP. "We fought the good fight and we came up just a bit short. We've had a good 18 years and I am proud of my record."
Burns, 71, did not plan any public appearances Thursday, his campaign said.
He also didn't say what he plans to do now, though he indicated he was looking forward to taking some time off. "I hope there is still a good-sized buck out there, because I am going hunting," he said.
Burns called Tester and conceded in a friendly and cordial conversation at about 11 a.m. and the barber shop, said Tester spokesman Matt McKenna.
"This was a hard fought campaign and I think that Montana is glad it is in their rear view mirror and Jon tester is ready to move forward," McKenna said.
Tester, who was running farm chores Thursday morning, picking up a barrel of oil in Great Falls on the way to his grain farm in Big Sandy, ran as an outsider to the Washington culture — the same theme Burns had used nearly two decades earlier.
"It is absolutely, critically important that we change the direction of the country," Tester, 50, said Wednesday after declaring victory by a thin margin of about 3,400 votes.
Tester said he wanted to empower the middle class, working families, small businesses and family farms and ranches — "the people who have made this country so great."
"It really is time to put politics aside," he said. "We've got many, many issues that are facing this great state and this country, both in foreign policy and domestic policy. We've talked about them for the last 18 months. Now is the time to roll up our sleeves and get some things done."
Tester's win — and fellow Democrat Jim Webb's close victory in Virginia — gave the Democrats the 51 Senate seats they need to control the chamber.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Tester had 198,302 votes, or 49.1 percent, to Burns' 194,904 votes, or 48.3 percent.
Together, the two campaigns spent more than $12 million.
Burns had not helped his own cause, with gaffes that included cursing at a firefighting crew in a state that sees thousands of acres burned in wildfires every summer. He was first elected in 1988 as a folksy, backslapping outsider, but this year, he was joined on the campaign trail by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Tester resisted help from the national party during his campaign.
When Burns tried to paint Tester as a liberal who wants to raise taxes and "cut and run" from Iraq, the liberal tag didn't seem to stick to the man who sports scuffed cowboy boots.
Tester portrayed himself as a Western moderate who owns guns, opposes gay marriage and has a libertarian's suspicion of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act.
He hammered Burns over his ties to Abramoff. Burns was a top recipient of campaign contributions from Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January to corruption. Burns has since returned or donated to charity about $150,000 he receive that was connected to Abramoff. He maintains he did nothing wrong and was not influenced by the lobbyist.
Ballot-counting problems delayed results of the race by about seven hours, keeping the nation in suspense. Duane Winslow, election administrator for Montana's most populous area, Yellowstone County, said he made a computer error while tabulating absentee ballots that required officials to start the process over.
Associated Press reporter Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.