Congressional GOP Candidates Take Aim at Zinke

As Montana gains back a congressional district, four conservative candidates took advantage of the frontrunner’s absence at a recent debate in Kalispell to shore up their far-right platforms

By Tristan Scott
The Western Montana Republican Congressional Debate featuring primary race candidates at Flathead Valley Community College on April 19, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Despite his absence at last week’s Republican congressional debate in the Flathead Valley, which is home to four of the five GOP candidates vying for Montana’s second seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, Ryan Zinke’s presence loomed large.

“Where is Ryan Zinke?” Dr. Al Oszewski of Kalispell exclaimed in his introductory remarks at the April 19 debate. “We elect our representatives. They are not coronated by Washington D.C. insiders or bought by special interests. So where is Ryan Zinke, the only other candidate [besides me] with a voting record?”

A former state legislator and orthopedic surgeon who has twice run unsuccessfully for statewide office, Olszewski is the second-best known candidate running for Montana’s new western congressional district, which the state gained back after losing it in the 1990 census.

Olszewski says his conservative record makes him the “best fit” to join fellow “Trump conservative” U.S. House Rep. Matt Rosendale in Congress, where the state’s at-large congressman is now running for re-election to its eastern congressional district. Since being elected in 2020, Rosendale has aligned himself closely with an ultra-conservative faction of House representatives known as the Freedom Caucus, which Olszewski has courted in earnest since announcing his candidacy for the new district.

Olszewski emphasized his conservative credentials when he ran for governor in 2020, coming in third in a three-way Republican primary. He also ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2018, losing the GOP primary to Rosendale — who went on to lose against Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

But Olszewski says he’s undeterred, believing he’s Montana’s best choice to challenge the political establishment in D.C.; he has not only disavowed Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader from California, but he continues to repeat unfounded evidence that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

“I won’t support Mr. McCarthy because he won’t support any of us,” Olszewski said. “He has already endorsed the candidate who refuses to be here tonight and he’s arranged for all his PACs to support Ryan Zinke. He’s just going to wash over Montana with ads for himself and against us. So it’s actually really easy for me to say, Mr. McCarthy, you suck.”

Despite the applause lines Olszewski earned at the debate, which was hosted by the Flathead County Republican Central Committee, his most recent quarterly fundraising report with the Federal Election Commission revealed that he’s trailing Zinke by more than $2 million.

So, where is Ryan Zinke?

According to a spokesperson for Zinke, who also was U.S. Interior secretary under former President Donald Trump, but resigned amid a swarm of federal investigations, he let them know verbally in February that the date of the debate conflicted with his schedule, a point he reiterated in writing the first week of March, instead proposing an alternate window in May. And while his absence from the debate wasn’t ideal optics for a candidate who splits his time between Whitefish and Santa Barbara, California, providing a seemingly endless cache of ammunition to his political rivals, he remains the frontrunner by a long shot.

At the end of March, Zinke’s congressional campaign reported having raised a total of $2,484,819.24 compared to Olszewski’s $678,063.92. Meanwhile, Mary Todd, of Kalispell, whose campaign platform mirrors Olszewski’s, has reported raising $167,779.17 while Mitch Heuer, a builder from Whitefish, and Matt Jette, a moderate Republican from Missoula, did not report collecting any money from supporters.

Despite the fundraising disparities, however, the candidates were all unified in their desire to defeat Zinke.

By far the biggest outlier on the debate stage was Jette, who separated himself from the other candidates early on by asserting that the 2020 election was fair and that no fraud took place.

“I’m not just going to throw you red meat that you are going to clap to,” Jette said. “I don’t think fraud took place. But the level of integrity in elections today is going to call into question the integrity of elections tomorrow. If we can’t get this one right, then how are we going to move forward. We are spending far too much time as a party on the 2020 election when we should be crafting policies that are going to help America. It sucks to lose. I get it. But let’s go and win in 2022 and let’s win in 2024.”

Todd, a Kalispell businesswoman and pastor, minced no words when answering debate moderator Frank Miele’s question about whether or not she believed the election was stolen.

“Do I think the election was stolen? Absolutely. I think we have the proof. I think we have everything. The fact is that Donald Trump got more votes than any president in history. Look at the algorithms. Look at the Dominion machines. America is like a baby and who in their right mind would allow their baby to get stolen and not fight to get it back. I wouldn’t.”

Heuer characterized himself as a problem solver, a trait he’s honed as a builder engineering development projects. The most prominent tenet of his campaign is his desire to see Congress incentivize manufacturing in the U.S., a shift he believes would alleviate inflation.

“I understand how to dissect problems and work toward a solution,” Heuer, a Whitefish resident, said. “Look at the housing crisis in Whitefish. The American dream of home ownership is all but lost. The young people have nothing to buy and the prices are through the roof.”

Since 1990, Montana has remained one of only a handful of states that elects a single member to the U.S. House of Representatives, and it currently has the lowest degree of federal representation in Congress: One representative occupies an at-large seat covering all 147,000 square miles, 1 million-plus people and 56 counties, a monumental job with a range of shortcomings, particularly as some segments of the state’s population grow rapidly.

Last November, Montana’s redistricting commission chair selected a congressional district map proposed by Republicans, dealing a blow to Democrats who hoped to craft a western district that would give them a better chance of winning.

Chair Maylinn Smith, who was appointed to the commission by the state’s Supreme Court, chose a map dividing the state into eastern and western districts, with the liberal college towns Bozeman and Missoula in the west but blue-leaning state capital Helena and Yellowstone National Park gateway community Livingston in the east.

The decision came after the commission’s two Republican and two Democratic members could not come to an agreement on how to divide the state into two congressional districts.

The 2022 federal primary election will be held on Tuesday, June 7, and the general election will be on Nov. 8.