ST. JOSEPH — U.S. Rep. Fred Upton let go a sigh of relief in the early hours Wednesday.

Upton, R-St. Joseph, claimed victory in a nail-biter of an election against Democratic challenger Matt Longjohn.

In what has been the 6th District’s most competitive race in a decade, Upton sweated through the remaining hours Tuesday among supporters at Shadowland in St. Joseph as did Longjohn at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo.

Upton overcame a large deficit late Tuesday to take his first lead shortly after 11 p.m. However, his lead remained thin Wednesday morning before he finally announced victory with a little more than 80 percent of precincts reported.

“We’re pleased with the results tonight,” Upton said. “It’s time to take this poison out of politics. Forget if you have an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ next to your name. Let’s work it out.”

Longjohn could not be reached for comment after Upton’s declaration, though he told a WOOD-TV reporter that he was not conceding.

About an hour after results started coming in, Longjohn produced a 6-point lead with a third of precincts reporting.

Prior to Tuesday night, Democrats had failed to take a single county from Upton in the last decade. That changed as Longjohn received an overwhelming amount of votes in Kalamazoo County.

With a 13,000-vote lead over Upton courtesy of Kalamazoo County, Upton relied on the district’s other five counties to push ahead.

Michigan’s 6th District encompasses about 720,000 people in the counties of Kalamazoo, Van Buren, Cass, St. Joseph, Berrien and Allegan County.

The race has been among the 6th District’s most competitive in recent years, bolstered by millions of dollars in spending from independent groups.

Over the course of his career, Upton had never earned less than 54 percent of the vote. Nearly all pre-election forecasts consistently predicted Upton would win his 17th consecutive term.

Upton has represented Southwest Michigan in Congress after being first elected in 1986 to Michigan’s 4th District. He later became the 6th District’s congressman after boundaries were redrawn in 1992.

The district generally leans to the right, with most of its Democratic voters living in Kalamazoo County, which was evident Tuesday night.

U.S. Taxpayers Party candidate Stephen Young also appeared on ballot, garnering low returns compared to Longjohn and Upton. However, he did garner enough votes to outweigh the difference between the other two candidates.

Contact: twittkowski@TheHP.com, 932-0358, Twitter: @TonyWittkowski