On a hot July afternoon at the Northwest Montana History Museum, Monica Tranel offered a pitch to a room of Flathead Valley Democrats: “Two years ago we set out to climb a high mountain, and together we came to a fork in the road,” she said.
Tranel continued — she’s ready to climb that high mountain again, this time all the way to the top. And she wants Montana’s western Congressional district to join her.
“Election night ‘22 is not the end of our journey,” Tranel said.
The Missoula attorney and former Olympic rower announced her candidacy for Congress earlier this week, setting up a potential rematch with U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, Tranel’s Republican opponent who beat her by 7,837 votes in a close House race last November. Though an air of skepticism has accompanied the beginning of Tranel’s second campaign — as Democrats in Montana prepare to face what will likely be an arduous election cycle in 2024 — she feels prepared to flip the seat, citing voters’ concerns about abortion, climate change and political radicalization, and what she described as the unpopularity of Zinke. At a Kalispell event on Wednesday evening, Tranel seized on her centrist politics, positioning herself as an alternative to Zinke and the state’s reddening political identity.
“We hear this term a lot — it’s not business as usual. And it seems to me of any times in our recent history, this is certainly not business as usual,” Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, said in an introduction of Tranel.
Fern, the only Democratic state lawmaker representing the Flathead Valley, described an increasingly polarized political landscape, fraught by wealth inequality, a lack of trust in institutions, geopolitical conflicts and “culture wars that most of us want no part of.”
In a ringing endorsement of Tranel, Fern lauded her work as an environmental and energy attorney, describing her as uniquely equipped to handle the challenges of climate change.
Tranel served as a staff attorney for the Montana Public Service Commission, the state’s quasi-judicial utilities regulatory board, before making a failed run as a Republican in 2004 to serve on the commission. She then worked as legal counselor for Montana’s Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, before leaving the Republican Party and becoming a Democrat in the mid-2000s. Tranel has worked in private practice since 2006, where she has represented renewable energy advocates in Montana state courts.
In the Flathead Valley, Tranel said, the impacts of climate change sit at the forefront of voters’ concerns. Citing efforts by legislators to weaken selenium safeguards on Lake Koocanusa and historic low water levels in Flathead Lake, Tranel painted a picture of an impending environmental crisis reshaping the nature of life in the Montana Rockies.
“We have problems and we need to solve them. It doesn’t make sense to just stay in this entrenched space. Let’s figure this out,” Tranel told reporters. “I bring 25 years of working on these issues to this conversation.”
Despite making references to climate change, tax increases and privacy issues, Tranel largely sidestepped policy while addressing attendees at the Kalispell event, distancing herself from the national Democratic Party and repeatedly emphasizing her merits as a homegrown candidate who can speak to Montana voters.
“Our work now is to overcome the division of the red and the blue and to dust off the purple DNA of our home, of our state, and to work together for real solutions,” she said during her address to attendees.
Tranel’s decision to keep party politics at an arm’s length reflects the challenges that lay ahead for Montana Democrats. Montana’s 2024 U.S. Senate race has drawn national attention as U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, the only Democrat in Montana’s Congressional delegation, prepares to defend his seat against what many pundits are calling a coordinated effort by Republicans to unseat him.
Asked about Zinke — who has not yet announced his reelection campaign but is presumed to make a run to retain his House seat — Tranel said that he is “not popular,” and that she intends to “give people an alternative.”
Zinke is a NAVY Seal and former state senator, and served as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior under President Donald Trump before he was forced to resign amid a flurry of ethics investigations. He narrowly won his Republican primary in June of 2022, garnering 42% of the vote to former state legislator Dr. Al Olszewski’s 40%.
When asked if voters might be deterred from supporting her again given her loss to Zinke in 2022, Tranel cited her endorsements and fundraising numbers as a sign of Montanans’ enthusiasm about her run.
Tranel’s campaign on Wednesday announced an endorsement from former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, adding to a list of state lawmakers, city councilors, mayors and political leaders who have thrown their weight behind her candidacy in recent days.
“I think people are excited to come back and finish the job” she said.
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