Continental Divides

A Democrat, by Golly

Monica Tranel says she is banking on character traits – hers and her opponent’s – eclipsing party affiliation

By John McCaslin

Montana could be on the cusp of sending a Democrat to Capitol Hill for the first time this century, which would be no small feat for a state that bleeds red.

Then again, the centrist candidate is banking on character traits – hers and her opponent’s – eclipsing party affiliation.

Lest we forget that Monica Tranel already came close in 2022 to capturing western Montana’s coveted 1st congressional district seat, losing by only three percentage points to her Republican challenger – then and now – Ryan Zinke.

Even more significant, Tranel trounced Zinke by 30 percentage points in voter-rich Missoula County and 12 points in rapidly expanding Gallatin County (she also captured Silver Bow by 24 points, Deer Lodge by 19, and Glacier by 17).

So right off the bat I ask her wouldn’t it make sense to concentrate your 2024 campaign in these more heavily populated and politically diverse counties like Gallatin – where new residents are registering to vote every day – than venturing, as she’s apt to do, into the GOP strongholds, where there’s a smattering of voters to potentially flip?

“Certainly one of the questions is are they moderate Republicans who would vote for a Democrat or middle-of-the-road centrist like me? And that’s part of our goal,” she replies. “In terms of where the votes are, you capture it correctly. But my strategy has been to appear everywhere. I don’t believe in the party ideology definition, I don’t accept that that’s reality, and I’m not being Pollyannaish.

“I’m trying to ask people to vote for the person and not the party, that’s really who we are. In 2008, [former Democratic Sen.] Max Baucus and [former Democratic Gov.] Brian Schweitzer carried all 16 of these [district’s] counties with more than 50 percent of the vote.

“Those [voters] didn’t all die, and they didn’t all move,” she points out. “So people in Montana vote for the person if they believe it’s a person who will represent them. I am that person in this race in Montana, so I have to get my name out there, I have to introduce myself, I have to build relationships, and let people know who I am and my story, and I think we’ll get there.”

Her story, in part: one of 10 siblings raised on a Montana ranch, wife and mother to three daughters, successful law practice in Missoula, and two-time U.S. Olympian rower at the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta and Sydney.

Surely competing in the Olympics was paramount in character building?

“I think that’s a little bit of a reversed order,” Tranel answers. “I grew up on a ranch and the work ethic that I learned in my family, and in my community growing up, is what I took to the Olympics. My work ethic in the Olympics was really from my family, it was from my dad, from my mom, and my siblings. We were all taught to contribute…

“If you asked any one of my [nine] siblings, if you locked us all in separate rooms and you knocked on each door separately, and you said tell me what the ‘contribution speech’ is, we’d all tell you the exact same story. My dad used to say, ‘If you’re going to sit at this table and eat this food, then you need to contribute something positive.’ And that was a lifelong lesson that was instilled in all of us, to use our gifts and contribute something positive to the world.”

Like three weeks ago, when Tranel rushed to Noxon (pop. 162) as an early morning fire consumed the town’s three main businesses: the general store, mercantile and tavern.

“I went there not as a politician, but as someone who experienced a [destructive] prairie fire as a little kid,” she recalls. “Before I knew it everybody in the [ranching] community was there, and I was very, very struck by that sense of community. So it was important for me to show up [in Noxon].”

Which further explains her campaign pledge – “I am showing up, I’m bringing that sense of obligation” – to the residents of western Montana.

And how does that differ from Zinke’s approach with constituents?

“Knowledge of the district, calling it my home, living here, raising my children in it, understanding it today as it exists, being in it, shopping for groceries in it, owning a home that I live in, paying property taxes on my home that I live in, driving through it, being here every day,” she rattles off.

“I know this place, this is my home. I don’t have another one, and that gives me a real sense of connectiveness, and a sense of obligation and duty. So I will represent it in a very real way.”

She never hesitates to speak bluntly of her opponent and his track record in Washington, both as a congressman and former Interior Secretary under former President Donald Trump (under intense pressure and amid multiple probes related to Montana real estate transactions and other alleged misconduct, Zinke ultimately resigned from his Cabinet post).

She’s particularly irked that Zinke and his Republican colleagues recently kowtowed to Trump by mothballing their own GOP-backed border security bill, which would have specifically targeted deadly fentanyl shipments reaching Montana.

“Apparently they want to do lockstep with Donald Trump on the border and use that as a campaign issue, which is ridiculous,” Tranel says. “Because if Ryan Zinke wanted to secure the border he would have voted for that bill and it would be done, it would be the law today. Instead he wants to play games and go on vacation and I think that’s bull [expletive] …

“It’s the ‘do-nothing Congress,’ the least productive Congress in our history. They’ve spent a year trying to elect a speaker, they haven’t passed [six months into the fiscal year] a budget – that’s their job, that’s the first order of business is to adopt a budget, and they’re still kicking that can down the road. Figure it out, do your job.”

One last thing before you go, is it true you actually want to arm-wrestle Zinke, a former Navy Seal?

“I have a standing offer to arm-wrestle him at any bar in Montana,” she confirms. “If he ever shows up here – I don’t think he’s ever here – tell him to come here and I’ll arm-wrestle him. I’ll debate him. I’ll horserace him, whatever he wants to do. And I’ll win.”

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.