With the general election less than a month away, the race for Montana’s new western congressional district is crystallizing as three candidates — Republican Ryan Zinke, Democrat Monica Tranel and Libertarian John Lamb — campaign for the historic opportunity to sit down at a 435-member table that for more than 30 years has assigned Montana a single place setting.
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 measure 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.
On Nov. 8, that’s set to change.
Based on new population data, Montana has gained a second congressional post, and the inaugural race to fill it has attracted a dynamic slate of candidates to a weighty midterm contest in which control of the U.S. House is at stake. With eligible voters set to receive absentee ballots this week and on the heels of two recent debates that illuminated new dimensions of each candidate, while also redefining the shape of the race in broader terms, constituents comprising a newly bifurcated district division are about to decide an essential question on Montana’s reconfigured political landscape — Who will represent?
It’s a question that has gained urgency since the district lines were redrawn last year as a host of highly consequential national issues add gravity to this fall’s midterm, ranging from access to abortion, energy independence, health care, immigration, gun violence, and the economy, which remains the dominant issue as everyday Americans are hobbled by the rising costs of goods, services and housing.
Matching the scope of issues in their diversity are the three Montana candidates, including Zinke, a former state legislator, congressman and cabinet member to President Donald Trump who nabbed the Republican nomination and assumed the role of de facto incumbent due to his powers of name recognition, which peaked during his brief tenure at the White House; Tranel, a Democrat who has never held elected office but worked for three decades representing renewable energy clients before the Public Service Commission, as well as working as a staff attorney for the quasi-judicial regulatory body (and running unsuccessfully for a seat on it in 2020) after wrapping up a career as an Olympic rower; and Lamb, a Madison County farmer who runs his “non-monetary campaign” with the help of his wife and six of his 12 children, and whose appearances alongside Tranel at a steady lineup of statewide community forums has helped him gain recognition as a third-party candidate advocating for individual liberty while limiting the reach of the federal government.
Even with the odds stacked against Lamb, his candidacy has livened the debate stage and could affect the vote, prompting longtime observers of Montana politics to draw comparisons to Independent Dan Cox, who stumped from a third-party platform in 2012’s U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Jon Tester and Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg. Tester won that race by four percentage points, with Cox notching 6.5% of the total vote, siphoning critical support from Rehberg.
“That was a sizable share of the right-of-center vote, and as we see Zinke going after Lamb a little bit on the debate stage, I have to think that he’s at least somewhat concerned that Republicans and conservatives might be moving toward Lamb,” Rob Saldin, a University of Montana political science professor, said. “And Zinke wants to cut that off as a viable alternative. Even if Lamb only appeals to a small segment of voters, we saw in the primary that Zinke really can’t afford to bleed any support from his base.”
Although a review of Montana’s voter turnout favors Republicans, particularly in midterm contests, the state hasn’t shied away from electing Democrats to statewide and federal office. Still, despite the work of an independent redistricting commission engineering Montana’s new congressional district to be as competitive as possible, national polls have cast it as “leaning Republican” and continue to peg Zinke as the odds-on-favorite.
Those odds might have diminished over a two-year period spanning 2019 and 2021 during which Zinke mostly avoided the public spotlight, holding his nose whenever he openly entertained the prospect of a future run for office. Instead, Zinke has enjoyed all the advantages of an incumbent candidate. Notwithstanding the public opprobrium he endured under his tenure serving Trump — or, perhaps, because of it — he emerged as a favorite to win the seat immediately upon announcing his congressional bid in 2021.
Indeed, from his roots as an Eagle Scout and standout high school football player in Whitefish to his meteoric rise in state and national politics and, finally, to his resignation as Interior Secretary in Washington, D.C., Zinke’s orbit in public service charts a dizzying path.
In less than a decade, the former Navy SEAL vaulted from retired military commander to Republican darling in Montana, winning a 2014 bid for the state’s lone seat on the U.S. House of Representatives and handily defending his incumbency in 2016 before a newly elected President Trump plucked Zinke from the halls of Congress and deposited him in the centrifuge of his innermost circle, setting into motion a 21-month career overseeing the nation’s federal lands and natural resources during which Zinke clocked a rapid tailspin. He not only accrued a heap of ethics investigations ranging from conflicts of interest to abuse of taxpayer funds to Hatch Act violations, but he also endured sharp criticism from an environmental lobby that turned from cautiously optimistic to enraged as Zinke cleaved away a half-century of environmental policy designed to furnish protections on millions of acres of public land.
When he resigned amid the numerous probes in late 2018, Zinke described the investigations as “meritless and false claims” and has continued to dismiss them as politically charged “witch hunts,” which he says are now part of the increasingly “hostile territory” enveloping D.C., and which figured prominently into his decision to step back from the public arena.
“There was too much hostility,” he told the Beacon in 2019, describing his egress from the Trump administration. “I just needed a break in my life. Between the SEALS, the state Legislature, Congress and Interior, you’re looking at 31 years of public service. And I’m honored to do it, and I’m honored to represent Montana. But I needed a break.”
That break officially ended with the inception of Montana’s western district, which was drawn to include the Democratic enclaves of Missoula, Bozeman and Butte, as well as the reliably conservative Flathead and Bitterroot valleys while depositing Helena and Great Falls into the eastern district.
Widely considered the frontrunner, Zinke’s supporters expected him to easily clear the primary field. Instead, a hard-fought race ensued with Zinke beating his closest rival, Kalispell physician and former state Sen. Al Olszewski, by less than 2 percentage points. A conservative hardliner whose political makeup aligns with the House Freedom Caucus, Olszewski trounced Zinke on his home turf, winning Flathead County, the district’s conservative nerve center, by 17 percentage points, capitalizing on his popularity with a contingent of local voters that skews to the far-right margins of the political spectrum.
In contrast, Zinke has been portrayed by his fellow Republicans as too moderate, despite an endorsement from Trump in his back pocket. The new political dimension signals just how sharply the GOP has shifted to the right, even as senescent members of Montana’s GOP establishment (hailing from a mostly bygone era) have drummed Zinke out of its ranks. For example, Marc Racicot, a fixture in Republican politics who served as Montana’s governor from 1993 to 2001, and Bob Brown, a former Republican state senator and secretary of state, recently endorsed Tranel in the congressional race, calling Zinke’s allegiance to Trump “indefensible.”
“It is noteworthy that early on, after announcing his candidacy, Zinke sought and received Donald Trump’s endorsement, describing Trump as a ‘kingmaker in terms of his sway with the voters,’” Racicot and Brown espoused in a co-written op-ed piece published this week by Montana news organizations. “Since that time Zinke has prominently displayed the Trump endorsement on his campaign website and campaign materials … It may be an understatement to describe Ryan Zinke as an acolyte and an enabler of the feckless and unprincipled former president, who has been, and who remains, a clear and present danger to the survival of the longest functioning democratic republic in the history of humankind.”
But Zinke flexed his political prowess on the debate stage last month when he dodged barbs from Tranel and turned them against her, characterizing her stance on access to abortion “barbaric,” despite doing so largely out of context, accusing the Democrat of supporting “open-ended” abortions and performing them “right up until birth” — a flourish of political rhetoric that Republicans have seized on to accuse their opponents of supporting elective late-term abortions, which medical experts say occur only in instances when a mother’s life is at risk or a fetus is not viable.
“This is not about privacy,” Zinke said at a debate last month hosted by the Montana Television Network. “It’s about abortion and your position to accept an abortion moments before birth and hide under privacy is barbaric.”
Unfazed, Tranel shot back, “What’s barbaric is for you to take this moment of incredible heartbreak at the end of a pregnancy, a time when parents forced to make that choice do so only in extreme circumstances, for you to use that as a political pond to justify taking away our privacy and our freedom to make choices about when we become a parent, that’s barbaric.”
Access to abortion has been a prominent point of contention in the U.S. House race since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturned the constitutional right last year, while a number of state-level restrictions foisted on Montana’s abortion laws last legislative session has made the GOP’s hardline stance opposing a woman’s right to choose a political liability for some Republicans. Zinke has sought to defuse his culpability by casting himself as a “pro life” candidate who opposes abortion, but not without exceptions.
“I am pro life and I am proud of it, but I am also a father and a husband and life isn’t perfect,” Zinke said. “So, I believe that banning it is too harsh. I wish abortion wasn’t there but life isn’t perfect and I understand that there are a lot of difficult circumstances that force families to decide.”
For Saldin, the efficacy with which Zinke countervailed a line of attack that should have played to Tranel’s advantage came as somewhat of a shock.
“It surprised me a bit how effectively Zinke has kind of neutralized the abortion issue. Like it or not, his ‘barbaric’ line actually did a pretty good job of shifting the terms of those exchanges to focus on the late-term stuff, which plays to the dynamic in public opinion in Montana that is very consistent. People don’t like having a right taken away, but they are very uncomfortable with the late-term stuff, so Zinke has been working to keep the focus on that, however disingenuous that argument may be.”
But Tranel hasn’t backed away from her claims that Zinke is a “purchased politician,” highlighting his ties to the oil and gas industry as an independent consultant as well as the apparent conflicts of interest that emerged during 18 federal ethics investigations and a pair of damning reports by the Office of Inspector General. And although she entered the June primary as something of a carbon copy to her Democratic rival Cora Neumann, she emerged with a decisive victory and a personal story that has resonated with voters, in large part because of her assurances that she remains detached from the partisan politics of D.C.
“I have spent my entire professional career here, 25 years working for Montana, delivering for you,” Tranel told voters last month in Whitefish. “Showing up is the first step in building community, and I have showed up for you.”
The event in Whitefish was one of 10 “debates” that Tranel and Lamb have held across the state without Zinke, prompting his campaign to accuse her of framing “scripted events” as debates to portray Zinke as an absentee candidate.
“These events are not debates. They are Monica Tranel campaign events organized by her campaign. We don’t even get invited to the majority of them,” according to Heather Swift, Zinke’s campaign spokesperson. “Her claim that there are ‘debates’ or whatever in all these places is just false. She is finding a political supporter with a title to host her a campaign forum then calling it a debate.”
The Tranel campaign says Swift’s statement is “patently false” and staff members provided the Beacon with documentation of the written invitations they sent urging Zinke and Lamb to attend debates or community forums in Missoula, Madison, Ravalli, Lincoln, Beaverhead, Mineral, Lincoln, Silver Bow, Gallatin, Granite, Flathead, Deer Lodge and Powell counties, as well as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
“The spirit of these debates is to inform the new congressional district voters about where each candidate stands on issues that matter to our communities,” reads an invitation to a pair of debates that occurred in September in Eureka and Hamilton. The Tranel campaign had hosted 17 debates or community forums as of mid-October.
Zinke did appear on debate stages Sept. 29 in Butte and Oct. 1 in Bozeman and participated in the first debate in Missoula on Aug. 8.
For Tranel, however, the historic opportunity to represent Montana’s second congressional seat is all about showing up.
“I’m grateful to continue to be on the trail, debating the issues and meeting voters where they live and work in order to understand the issues most important to them,” she said. “Montanans want a representative who will take their homegrown solutions to Congress. It’s disappointing, but not surprising that part-time resident Ryan Zinke is afraid to answer for his trail of corruption and wouldn’t make the time to meet with the people he claims he wants to serve in his former hometown.”
The addition of a second seat for Montana on the U.S. House of Representatives serves the dual purpose of adding representation to the state while also providing a litmus test of the shifting political sands, Saldin said.
Beginning in 1918, the state had two congressional districts, a western district and an eastern district (from 1912 to 1916 Montana had two at-large districts), but it lost one after the 1990 census, as population growth stagnated during the 1980s.
“I think it’s good for the state,” Saldin said. “Since [Denny] Rehberg left it’s been just a revolving door. There was Daines, there was Zinke, there was Gianforte, there’s Rosendale. But nobody has really committed to the seat or built up any seniority in Congress. It also makes it an easier job. The members of the House don’t have the same resources or staff, and for 30 years Montana’s representatives have been stretched across this major geographic area. So, cutting that in half makes that job a little easier because you don’t have to cover the sate corner to corner, and that might also make it less of a revolving door.”
“This will also serve as an indicator of how Montana has shifted politically,” Saldin said. “If this had happened 10 years ago, the Democratic candidate would have been a real favorite to win. But Montana has changed. Still, this should be the kind of district where Democrats have a chance, and if this one comes out looking like the last several at-large elections, with these vast 10-point victor margins favoring Republicans, that’s real indication that Montana is officially a Republican state at this point. On the other hand, Tranel could win this thing — and these are the kinds of seats that Democrats nationally need to be winning if they are going to have a majority — so, for a state like Montana, this will be a really interesting way to gauge the political winds.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include a response from the Tranel campaign disputing claims by a Zinke staff member that the Republican candidate was not invited to the “majority” of debates and community forums the Democrat has held across Montana. Tranel’s campaign says the statement is false and provided documentation of the invitations.
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