CONCORD, N.H.—Conservative attorney Ovide Lamontagne and former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte were still waiting Wednesday to learn which of them will be New Hampshire's Republican U.S. Senate nominee.
Paula Penney, elections assistant at the Secretary of State's office, said returns were still coming in and that staff had been working on counting them throughout the night.
Ayotte held a slight lead -- close enough for Lamontagne to legally request a recount if the margin held -- with 257 of 301 precincts reporting, or 85 percent. Ayotte had 46,331 votes, or 38 percent, while Lamontagne had 45,352, or 37 percent.
Multimillionaire businessman Bill Binnie, who spent more than $5 million out of his own pocket pushing his jobs agenda, received 16,960 votes, or 14 percent, and conceded along with millionaire businessman Jim Bender, who got 10,507 votes, or 9 percent.
Lamontagne, who painted himself as the only true conservative in the race, held a slight advantage in early returns over Ayotte -- former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's pick for the seat. But as Tuesday night wore on, Ayotte took a slight lead.
The winner hopes to win retiring GOP Sen. Judd Gregg's seat and face Democratic nominee Paul Hodes, who was unopposed.
Losers in state primary elections can ask for a recount if the losing margin is within 1.5 percent of the total votes cast in a race. Penney said no recount request had been made yet; candidates have until 5 p.m. Wednesday to make the request.
Hodes said Tuesday night the Republican agenda is "extreme, radical and right wing." He said Republicans would take the country backward into the hole from which the nation is struggling to dig out.
"I'm running for the people of New Hampshire. I don't have to run against anyone," Hodes said.
Ayotte, 42, of Nashua, won the blessing from Palin, who calls her a "Granite Grizzly." Ayotte spent more than $2 million on her anti-Democrat, anti-federal spending campaign.
Lamontagne closed fast in the final days of the race despite spending only $400,000. Lamontagne, 52, counted on conservative groups, not money, to win the nomination.
"It's not how much money you have, it's the message," Lamontagne said Tuesday night.
In a fight over who is the most conservative, Ayotte won Palin's endorsement in July over Lamontagne, who courted tea party activists. Palin, the former vice presidential nominee, recorded telephone messages to voters that started Sunday praising Ayotte as "the true conservative" -- a mantle Lamontagne had tried to claim as his throughout his campaign.
Lamontagne's two previous election bids were unsuccessful. His late surge was similar to his victory over former U.S. Rep. Bill Zeliff for the 1996 GOP gubernatorial nomination, but Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen beat him to capture the first of her three two-year terms as governor. Lamontagne failed in a GOP primary bid in 1992 to unseat Zeliff in the 1st District.
The Republicans spent more than $9.5 million for the chance to face Hodes, 59, of Concord. Despite being unopposed, Hodes spent $2.5 million to line up support to try to win the seat. The spending totals will rise after final primary campaign finance reports are filed with the Federal Elections Commission.