For Monica Tranel — Missoula attorney, former Olympic rower and Democratic candidate for Montana’s western U.S. House district — things seem different this time.
On a blustery January morning, as the Flathead Valley found itself buried under a foot of long-awaited snow, Tranel recounted the last six months of her life. It’s six months that the candidate has measured in bike rides and brewery visits through Butte, Libby, Paradise, Centerville, Columbia Falls and Hamilton, as well as 20,000 miles marked on the odometer of her car.
“I’ve been campaigning for a few years now,” Tranel conceded with a laugh.
The candidate in 2022 lost a race for Montana’s western House district to Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke. This is her fourth political campaign and second run for Congress.
“What I’m hearing now is actually really different,” she continued, discussing the shifts between her 2022 and 2024 Congressional campaigns. “It’s really refreshing.”
Tranel in July announced her second run for the U.S. House, building her candidacy off of the framework she assembled in 2022 and setting up a rematch with Zinke, a two-term Congressman and a main target of Tranel’s campaign. At a July launch event in Kalispell, Tranel told attendees that Montanans were worn out by political division, ready for real policy solutions and sick and tired of Zinke.
“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 at the event.
Six months after her campaign launch, Tranel remains energized, and the Democrats behind her are optimistic that Western Montana will be a true battleground district in 2024, despite Montana’s increasingly conservative electorate. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the Hill committee responsible for electing Democrats to the U.S. House, deemed Tranel a “top-tier” candidate on Jan. 29 as part of its “Red to Blue” program, which provides support for Democratic candidates running in swing districts. The candidate sees her centrist message as an antidote to the turmoil of Washington D.C. and an alternative to Zinke’s scandal-ridden tenure in the nation’s capitol.
“What I’m hearing on the ground is, ‘What are ways that we can come together?’ There is just a total exhaustion with the chaos. What’s happening in the U.S. House right now is just totally unacceptable. It’s chaos. It’s the circus. It’s anarchy,” she told the Beacon recently. “What I hear is, I don’t want the chaos. It doesn’t serve our community.”
For nearly 30 years, from 1992 to 2020, Montanans sent one at-large member to the U.S. House to represent the entire state. After the 2020 U.S. Census showed a population increase of nearly 95,000 residents, the state gained a representative in Congress, splitting it into two U.S. House districts.
While Montana’s politics have trended red in recent years, turning the state into a stronghold for Republicans, Democrats see its western U.S. House district as a legitimate battleground in 2024. The district contains the reliably Democratic cities of Whitefish, Missoula, Butte, Deer Lodge and Bozeman, as well as the Flathead and Blackfeet Native Reservations. Tranel in 2022 won Missoula, Gallatin, Silver Bow, Deer Lodge and Glacier counties, and collected 40% of the vote in Lake County and 35% in Flathead County.
The state’s western district is considered far more competitive than Montana’s eastern district, where Republican U.S. Rep Matt Rosendale won every single county in 2022.
Ron Gerson, chair of the Flathead County Democratic Party, said that local Democrats are excited about Tranel’s run and see her as poised to beat Zinke this fall.
“She’s super smart, and she’s down to earth, and she listens,” Gerson said of Tranel. “She’s not there to prove a point. She wants to get stuff done.”
Gerson noted the slim margin between Tranel and Zinke in 2022 — Tranel lost by 7,837 votes, or about 3% — and said that many Democrats attribute the loss to low voter turnout in critical areas. He said the party is working to boost turnout ahead of Election Day and to connect with independent and moderate Republican voters who may be looking for an alternative to Zinke.
Pundits and Democratic strategists have also theorized that the appearance of Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s name on the ballot may help Tranel.
Tester has held on as the only Democratic member of Montana’s Congressional delegation amid Republican supermajority control of the state Legislature, the governor’s office, two U.S. House seats and one U.S. Senate seat.
A three-term senator and Big Sandy farmer, Tester retained his Senate seat despite challenges from former Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg and Rosendale, who was serving as Montana state auditor at the time he challenged Tester in 2018.
Democratic strategists are hopeful that Tester will draw Democrats to the polls and elevate the party’s slate of 2024 candidates, including Tranel. According to a November 2023 poll from Morning Consult, 61% of Montanans approve of Tester, making him one of the most popular senators in the nation. An October 2023 Emerson College poll showed Tester beating Republican challenger Tim Sheehy by four percentage points.
Tranel, like Tester, has boasted her moderate credentials and her desire to win over voters from the other side of the aisle.
“We have to be putting people into office who really, truly represent us and bring that center voice that has been really lost,” she said.
Across the western district, Tranel said she’s heard the same concerns from voters: childcare, education, housing and healthcare. Low salaries and a lack of workforce housing have made it nearly impossible for schools, childcare centers and hospitals to find adequate staff. Wages have failed to keep up with rising housing costs and skyrocketing property taxes. Nearly 93,000 Montanans have lost their Medicaid coverage following the end of federal pandemic-era protections.
Tranel lauded the COVID-19 relief programs that brought infrastructure funding to Montanans. The pandemic-era American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allowed Flathead County to purchase land for a new septage facility and brought $6.7 million in funding to Whitefish, Kalispell and Columbia Falls.
“If we get to the same place for different reasons, I think that’s okay,” she said. “But what I saw and heard are people are really, really wanting to sit down and have these conversations and work through the issues for the better of our communities.”
When asked about the national Democratic party, which has struggled to maintain enthusiasm for President Joe Biden in recent months, Tranel responded that she can only speak to her personal stances and her experience campaigning in western Montana. She rebuked accusations that she would vote in lock-step with the Democratic party if elected to Congress, saying that she has “been the one who stood up and asked the hard questions.”
Offering the example of immigration, Tranel said, “I think we need to have legal immigration. People can come here, go to the consulate, apply, and if they come here illegally, they get sent home. No illegal immigration, period.”
“Is that left, or right, or center? That’s who I am and where [Montana’s western district] is, I think,” she added.
The candidate also lauded her ties to the area and her boots-on-the-ground campaign strategy while taking shots at Zinke.
“Showing up is the first rule of anything, right? People want to be heard. They want to be listened to,” Tranel said.
She alleged that Zinke “doesn’t show up” and “doesn’t live here,” reflecting longstanding questions about whether Zinke lives in Montana or in Santa Barbara, Calif., where his wife in 2022 declared her primary residence.
In an email to the Beacon, Zinke’s chief of staff Heather Swift said, “Monica Tranel is knowingly lying when she says Congressman Zinke doesn’t live in Montana, but we wouldn’t expect anything else from somebody with such a lack of moral character. The irony is she is not even from Montana! She tried that baseless lie against Zinke in 2022 and she lost, it’s not going to work this time either. On her other ridiculous attack that he ‘doesn’t show up,’ Congressman Zinke is doing the job Montanans elected him to do, and unfortunately that job is in D.C. so he doesn’t get to spend as much time in Montana as he’d like. Montana voters understand that the job of the Congressman is in D.C., it’s laughable but predictable that Monica Tranel doesn’t understand the basics of the job.”
Tranel was born in Big Horn, Wyo., and in 2022 told the Montana Free Press that she grew up in Miles City, Ashland, Broadview and Billings.
As she looked to the months of campaigning ahead, Tranel described her vision for a more bipartisan Montana, one driven by centrist politics and pragmatic leaders.
“There used to be the whole time when Republicans and Democrats really worked together to get things done,” she said. “We need to try to return to those days of saying, ‘Where are you trying to get?’ ‘How do we get there together?’ And if your philosophy is fundamentally different than mine, but we want the same outcome, ‘Can we figure that out?’”
“The traditional Montana Republicans that I know don’t vote for a straight party. They vote for the person. They’re independent thinkers. So, that’s who I’m trying to reach.”
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