Democrat Jon Tester declared victory over Republican Sen. Conrad Burns in Montana on Wednesday in a close contest, but the incumbent declined to concede in a race crucial to control of the U.S. Senate.

“We won this thing,” Tester, 50, the state senate president and organic farmer, told a Great Falls news conference.

In the latest unofficial results from the Montana secretary of state’s office, Tester won 181,917 votes or 49.2 percent, compared to 178,567 or 48.3 percent for Burns, who was first elected in 1988.

U.S. media called the election for Tester, a burly man who wears a flat-top haircut, even as last votes were added to the tally.

“Jon Tester ran a good race and has the lead right now, but it is extremely close,” Burns said in a statement. “There are still votes out there that deserve to be counted.”

“I believe we need to continue to let that process play itself out and there is no need to rush to a conclusion when the votes are this close.”

A Democratic win in the Western state of Montana would give the party 50 seats in the 100-seat U.S. Senate, with the only undecided contest in Virginia.

“It’s over,” Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who campaigned for Tester and narrowly lost himself to Burns in 2000, said by telephone. Burns, 71, is “no longer a U.S. senator come January.”

Incumbent Burns, who once pledged he would not serve more than a dozen years in office, was tainted by links to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his campaign was marred by several gaffes. Montanans strongly backed Republican President George W. Bush during his two election campaigns, but Tester won support by making ethics a focus of his campaign.

A recount would be allowed if the margin of victory in the official Montana tally is 0.5 percent or less of votes cast. Under Montana’s system a candidate must pay for the recount if the review does not change the outcome. However the state pays if the contest is within .25 points, or about 1,000. A candidate could also ask a judge for a recount.

Tester said he had not heard from Burns and did not know if the Republican would push for a recount. Such a request could only be made after the official count is announced, which could come next week at earliest, according to a spokesman for the Montana Secretary of State.

© 2006 Reuters