JEFFERSON CITY — Democrat Jay Nixon was declared Missouri's next governor even as votes were still being cast in St. Louis County.
U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof was so far behind in the polls, including exit polling, that The Associated Press declared Nixon the winner moments after the polls officially closed.
Only a third of Missouri precincts had reported when Nixon accepted Hulshof's concession with 55.4 percent of the vote. Hulshof had 42.5 percent of the vote.
Hulshof conceded the race from his watch party at the Holiday Inn Executive Center in Columbia after spending the night ensconced in a hotel room with his advisers.
"I love Missouri too much for our state to remain divided," Hulshof said. "There are tough choices ahead for all Republicans. It's better to lose an election than to lose our integrity."
The crowd cheered for Hulshof as he conceded the race, his wife Renee crying by his side. Following his announcement, Hulshof was swept from the room by aides.
At about 10 p.m., Nixon stepped onto the stage at the Pageant Theater in St. Louis as Lenny Kravitz's song "Are You Gonna Go My Way" played and chants of "Jay! Jay! Jay!" rose from the audience.
"Today millions of Missourians went to the polls, and they spoke loudly and clearly," Nixon told the crowd. "Missourians voted for change, and with me as governor, change is what they'll get."
The 16-year state attorney general asked for the support of those who did not vote for him.
"To bring about real change, we'll need every voice and every idea," Nixon said. "We will turn this state around. We will get Missouri moving in a new direction, forward to a better future."
The new governor-elect will have to deal with a legislature that will remain firmly under Republican control.
Nixon said he still calls Hulshof, his former employee in the attorney general's office, a friend.
When Nixon made his victory speech, he led Hulshof's home county, Boone County, with 60 percent of the vote in 28 of 101 precincts counted. At that time he had 55 percent of the state vote.
Democratic Party spokesman Zac Wright said Tuesday was a great night for Missouri.
"I think we have a chance at a real change we need, and that's embodied in Jay Nixon," Wright said.
State Democrats came out to support Nixon as ballot numbers were counted.
Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis, said at Nixon's watch party that he connected with voters on making health care and higher education more affordable.
Former Gov. Roger Wilson also came out to see the governor-elect's speech and said Nixon demonstrated his readiness for the job through 16 years as attorney general.
"People understood he was good and ready to go," Wilson said.
Wilson called Hulshof a good person but said running a state office isn't the same as being a congressman and that the public doesn't have a favorable opinion of Washington now.
U.S. Senator Kit Bond pointed to the late start of Hulshof's campaign, thanks to Gov. Matt Blunt's decision not to run for a second term, as a reason for the Republicans loss.
"Kenny started out in February with only name recognition in northeast Missouri, and if Kenny had had an opportunity to get known throughout the state, I think he would have been much much stronger," he said at Hulshof's watch party.
Bond wouldn't say if he would support Hulshof in a possible run to fill Bond's Senate seat but said he hopes to Hulshof continues to serve.
"Kenny is the kind of person who can contribute to the state in the future," Bond said.
Throughout the race, Nixon dominated the Hulshof campaign through fundraising. He brought in nearly twice the Republican amount — $16 million to almost $8.3 million. In huge gains in October, Nixon brought in $2.5 million to Hulshof's $1.2 million.
In the final days of the campaign, Nixon used his considerable financial advantage to help fund "down ticket" candidates, giving $25,000 to the campaigns of Sam Page and Chris Koster and $75,000 to state treasurer candidate Clint Zweifel. Page and Zweifel lost their races.
Long lines in polling places around the state led to some St. Louis County voters waiting between four and seven hours to vote.
Denise Lieberman, spokeswoman for the Election Protection Coalition, an equal opportunity voting group, said malfunctioning machines and not enough privacy booths led to the problems.
"We just had a tremendous day when it comes to lines," Lieberman said. "That's a long time to wait— it's so long that it becomes disenfranchising."
The Secretary of State's office said the polling places in St. Louis County remained open as late as 9 p.m.
Secretary of State Robin Carnahan released a statement Oct. 31 saying election officials in 10 of Missouri's largest counties have reported a 40 percent increase in absentee ballot requests from 2004. Absentee ballots are not tracked statewide before an election. Carnahan said St. Louis County saw an estimated 50 percent increase in absentee ballot requests.
According to the Secretary of State's Office, over 4.2 million Missourians were registered to vote. On Oct. 27 Carnahan predicted a 76 percent voter turnout for the election. If the prediction is met, more than 3.2 million Missourians will have cast their votes.