Flanked by more than 100 jubilant supporters and backlit by a projection-screen ticker of national poll results, nearly all of them foretelling a likely Donald Trump presidency, Whitefish’s Ryan Zinke took the podium late Tuesday night to accept a decisive nod for Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
With a firm lead in hand throughout the evening, Zinke mingled with throngs of Republicans in a conference room at the Lodge at Whitefish Lake, cheering as the GOP’s presidential nominee inched closer to an upset victory, while Zinke handily strolled to a second term, holding firm with a 57 percent to 39 percent lead and edging out his Democratic opponent, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, who conceded her historic candidacy shortly before midnight.
As media outlets reeled in the jet wash of Donald Trump’s poll-defying Election Day surge, and pundits struggled to explain how data-driven predictions had erred so glaringly in the weeks leading up to Tuesday, Zinke and his roomful of Republican supporters — many of them GOP lawmakers from the Flathead Valley with clear victories of their own in sight — reveled in the moment.
Noting the divisiveness of the election cycle, Zinke, a devoted Trump supporter and a sharp critic of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, said the path forward is one of unity but pressed the need to “heal quickly.”
“I am so honored to be your Congressman,” Zinke, 55, said as he choked up alongside his wife and son. “Our last line of defense has always been the American people, and now we find ourselves doubting. This election has divided us. And it is going to take healing and it is going to take us working together. And if we do, America is going to be a great country in perpetuity.”
With 367,540 votes tallied, the first-term Republican congressman held a strong lead over his opponent with 212,657 votes, while the Democrat running for national office for her first time tallied a count of 143,426.
In a speech to supporters gathered in Missoula, Juneau said she was proud of the campaign she ran seeking to become the first Native American woman to serve in Congress, citing her record at the Office of Public Instruction of raising graduation rates to a record high of 86 percent.
“I am really proud of our campaign. It is extraordinary. We championed the right issues and we ran a positive campaign based on issues,” she told her cheering supporters.
But pundits predicted an uphill battle from the beginning, and Zinke’s incumbency gave him an early advantage, while his status as the country’s first former Navy SEAL Congressman elevated him on the national stage and improved his name recognition in Montana.
Two years ago, while running for his first term, the Republican candidate won the race decisively, edging out Democratic challenger John Lewis by nearly 15 percentage points. On Tuesday, Zinke again showed his political acumen.
Meanwhile, a handful of Flathead Republicans in state Senate and House races celebrated their own victories alongside Zinke.
With nine of nine precincts in Flathead County partially reporting, preliminary results show that Republican House Majority Leader Keith Regier, running for the open seat in Senate District 3 after reaching term limits in the House, handily defeated Democrat Melissa Hartman 57 percent to 42 percent.
In the race for House District 3, Keith Regier’s son, Republican Matt Regier, held a 77 percent to 22 percent advantage over his Democratic opponent, Deborah Gentry, while Carl Glimm, R-Kila, drew 66 percent of the vote compared to Democrat Lisa Morrow’s 28 percent, and Libertarian Ian Wheeler’s 5 percent.
Republican Frank Garner, of Kalispell, easily won his second term to represent House District 7, earning 65 percent of the vote compared to Democratic challenger Lynn Stanley’s 34 percent.
Likewise, Republican Steve Lavin won House District 8 with 76 percent, compared to Democrat C Paige Rappleye’s 23 percent.
Other sweeping Republican victories went to Randy Brodehl in House District 9, who defeated Democrat Brittany MacLean, and Derek Skees in House District 11, who won the seat 74 percent to Democrat Eileen Bach Bech’s 25 percent.
Still, Flathead Democrats were not without their victories.
Incumbent Rep. Zac Perry, D-Columbia Falls, won his House District 3 reelection bid by 5 percent, beating Republican Taylor Rose, 2,354 to 2,122.
In House District 5, which encompasses Whitefish, Democrat Dave Fern defeated Republican Chet Billi, capturing 56.6 percent of the vote to Billi’s 43.3 percent.
Fern held an edge over Billi, a first-time candidate, due to his prominent role on the Whitefish School Board and his previous bid for a state Senate seat, which elevated his name recognition.