Tranel makes a play for the middle in the western district House race
Monica Tranel, a longtime energy and agriculture attorney based in Missoula, is chatting with voters in the livestock barn at the Ravalli County Fair in Hamilton.
As she zig zags between cows, pigs and people, she’s quick to introduce herself.
Tranel’s talking points in these brief interactions include her time as an Olympic rower, growing up on a ranch with her nine siblings in eastern Montana and being a mom to three daughters.
She spent much of that late August morning in Ravalli County talking to conservatives and trying to find common ground.
She introduced herself to a few as a Democrat with a Libertarian streak.
“I mean, we’re not going to agree on every issue, but I’m here for the people of Montana," she said. "And I’m going to show up and I'll work for you."
Over the last decade, a Democratic U.S. House candidate hasn’t won more than 36% of the vote in Ravalli County. This is a place Tranel will have to work hard to earn votes if Montana Democrats want to send someone from their party to the House for the first time since the late 1990s.
Ahead of the primary election last spring, Tranel said during a debate there’s no path to victory for her party relying solely on Democratic voters.
“We’ve got to have the persuadable voters, we have to energize our base," she said. "It’s both.”
Tranel has run twice unsuccessfully for the state’s utility oversight board, the Public Service Commission. This is her first campaign for federal office, and that puts her at a disadvantage in terms of name recognition to her opponent, Republican Ryan Zinke.
Zinke has previously won election to the U.S. House and was later tapped to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior by former President Donald Trump. Tranel also faces Libertarian John Lamb in the election.
She’s running in the aftermath of the 2020 election when Montana Republicans dominated and Democrats lost big.
Cook Political Report says the seat is likely to end up in Republican hands.
Tranel says she’s up to the task. In 2020, she ran as a Democrat for the Public Service Commission; although she lost, she received the largest share of votes of any Democrat in the district she ran.
In Tranel’s appeal to moderates and persuadable conservatives she often focuses on her work as an attorney.
“When I say I've kept $10 million in your pocket, you can find that case online and read it and verify that for yourself. So I've been here, I've been on the ground in the trenches with you, by your side, in our community, showing up," she said.
Tranel is referring to a lawsuit she won against Northwestern Energy in which a court struck down a law that allowed the monopoly utility to pre-approve charges on ratepayers for new energy-generating resources.
Tranel’s been in private practice for more than a decade and has also worked for the Montana Consumer Counsel, which advocates for the interests of consumers of regulated utilities.
Former Montana Republican Party chair Susan Good Geise pointed to Tranel’s work as an attorney for why she’s crossing political lines to support her. Good Geise was chair of the party in the early '90s. She briefly ran for U.S. Senate as a Libertarian candidate in 2020.
Tranel featured Good Geise in a campaign ad.
The week ballots went out to voters, former Republican Gov. Marc Racicot and former Republican Secretary of State Bob Brown also threw their support behind Tranel.
Sometimes rejecting labels
Tranel may have an advantage over other Democrats in efforts to build bridges with Republicans. She carried an "R" behind her name when she first ran for public office in 2004.
Tranel was a staff attorney for the Montana Public Service Commission when she decided to run as a Republican for an open seat. She lost in the primary. After that, Tranel worked briefly as legislative counsel for Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns.
She’s vague about her political transition, saying she views her past experience as nonpartisan.
“When I think about running for Congress, I think of myself as a Montanan. I really, truly do," she said in an interview with Montana Public Radio. "That’s first and foremost who I am and what I want to represent. And I’m tired of the noise, I’m tired of the division, I’m tired of labels.”
Tranel does not afford the same leeway in labels to her Republican opponent, Ryan Zinke — especially when it comes to abortion.
During a debate in Missoula, the candidates were asked whether they would support a national ban on abortion. Zinke answered there should be exceptions for cases of rape, incest and life-threatening health emergencies.
Immediately after, Tranel said she would protect access to abortion, and that Zinke would allow women to die before permitting abortions.
When asked about the contradiction, Tranel said she hasn’t heard Zinke denounce the Montana GOP’s party platform on abortion, which calls for a ban without exceptions.
“That's a very extreme position," she said. "That is a position of the Republican Party in Montana right now. And he was there. He was at the convention.”
While Tranel searches for common ground with moderates and conservatives, she also touts her endorsements from prominent Montana Democrats, like state Sen. Diane Sands and former Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Democratic policy goals
Where Tranel says she falls on the political spectrum is at times vague, but her stances on policy largely align with Democratic priorities.
She’s supportive of the Inflation Reduction Act for its investments in renewable energy. She says Congress should look for ways to make preschool and daycare more affordable. And she also supports federal student loan forgiveness for some, saying Montanans are being priced out of the communities they work in.
“Do we want people teaching our kids without having them saddled with debt, and being able to buy a house? I do," she said.
Tranel also agrees with Democrats that Congress should put in place more safeguards for gun sales, like more comprehensive background checks.
“Keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people is in everybody's interest," she said. "That's what our communities want. That's what we need to be safe, to be safe with each other, to feel free.”
“Keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people is in everybody's interest. That's what our communities want. That's what we need to be safe, to be safe with each other, to feel free.”
Stitching a coalition
Lee Banville, a University of Montana journalism professor and political analyst, says Tranel being upfront about her policy stances, even if they might alienate conservatives, is a good strategy to distinguish herself from Zinke.
“One of her central messages — and when you run a campaign, you want to kind of hit the message from multiple angles — is not just that I tell the truth, but that Ryan Zinke doesn’t,” Banville said.
Federal investigations into Zinke’s time as secretary of the Interior have concluded he failed to adhere to his duty of candor when it came to using agency resources. Zinke has called the investigations “political” hit jobs.
Banville says it’s possible Tranel’s pitch to moderates will prove successful with that messaging, even in a tough political environment for Democrats.
“I think she could stitch together a coalition. I think that argument of 'I’m an independent' could work here," Banville said. "Will it work for her? I think it’s way too early to tell and we just have no polling, so we really have no idea where people are on this.”
Tranel’s message was resonating with some voters on the campaign trail in Ravalli County. Mark Snider, a veteran and business owner in Hamilton, showed up to walk with the campaign in the Ravalli County Fair Parade.
“Anyone that stands up for truth and American values, honesty and the Constitution, I’ll support — and she does," Snider said. "The issues, I think, are election integrity, the environment, global warming, things like that are very important."
During the same parade, Snider saw Republican legislative candidates David Bedey and Wayne Rusk walk by, and cheered them on.
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