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Zinke wins race for Montana’s western U.S. House district

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, left, speaks with patrons at Metals Sports Bar and Grill on May 13 in Butte, Mont. Zinke is seeking election to a newly created U.S. House district.
Matthew Brown
Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, left, speaks with patrons at Metals Sports Bar and Grill on May 13 in Butte, Mont.

Republican Ryan Zinke has won the race to represent Montana’s newly created western U.S. House district.

With all precincts reported, Zinke received 120,285 votes. Energy attorney Monica Tranel, a Missoula Democrat, received 112,271 votes, four points behind Zinke. John Lamb, a Norris farmer running on the Libertarian ticket, came in third with 9,304 votes. Zinke declared victory Wednesday night, and the Associated Press called the race for him Thursday morning.

“I’m incredibly grateful to the people of Western Montana for once again placing their trust in me to fight for them in Washington, D.C.,” Zinke said in a statement Wednesday night. “The voters saw through the vicious lies and deceit of my opponents and radical political groups. Truth matters, and now it’s time to fight for freedom and protect our way of life in Montana.”

In a tearful Thursday morning speech in front of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library in Missoula, Tranel, bundled in a heavy coat as snow fell, conceded, thanking her supporters and pledging to continue fighting for the state.

“I shall do so not in the 118th U.S. Congress, but I will serve the people of Montana as I have done my entire career, as your advocate, as your neighbor, as a forever champion of the Montana that I know, I love and I believe in still,” Tranel said.

Zinke will soon be the first person to represent the western U.S. House district. The state had two districts until the 1990 U.S. census, when it was relegated to a single at-large district. Montana regained its second congressional district following the 2020 census count.

The western district, as drawn by the state Districting and Apportionment Commission, includes 16 counties and two Native American reservations. Republican former President Donald Trump would have carried the district by 7 points in 2020. Tranel outperformed Democratic President Joe Biden in the district, but ultimately could not drive enough votes her way to upset Zinke, who has been considered the favorite since declaring his candidacy in the primary.

It was arguably the state’s highest profile race this year, as Montana Democrats looked to improve on a dismal showing in 2020 and send one of their own to Congress for the first time since longtime representative Pat Williams retired in 1997.

Zinke raised more than $6 million, more than double the $2.8 million Tranel brought in. Lamb did not file campaign finance paperwork, saying he did not raise or spend enough to cross federal reporting thresholds.

Zinke, a former Navy SEAL from Whitefish, began his political career as a state legislator in 2009. He was elected to Montana’s at-large House district in 2014, and then again in 2016. Shortly after being elected to his second term, Zinke joined the cabinet of President Donald Trump as Interior Secretary, a tumultuous period that generated 18 federal investigations into Zinke’s ethics and decision making before his resignation in 2018. Trump endorsed Zinke’s run this cycle.

The former congressman’s time in the Trump administration has colored much of his campaign, both in terms of policy and his contempt for the “deep state” that he says stood in his way during his tenure as Interior Secretary.

He has trumpeted his record as a booster of domestic energy protection — which he achieved in part by expanding oil and gas leasing on public lands — and has said the first piece of legislation he will introduce is the so-called FEAR Act, a proposal to make it easier to fire federal employees. If Republicans take the U.S. House — which, despite a few outstanding races, seems likely — Zinke has said the party needs to use its appropriations power to hamstring the Biden administration and cut federal spending.

“We’re just gonna take the money away so they can’t buy a piece of paper, let alone hiring the Department of Environmental Justice in the EPA,” he said at an October campaign event in Ravalli County.

Monica Tranel is interviewed at her election night watch party in Missoula.
Shaylee Ragar
Montana Public Radio
Monica Tranel is interviewed at her election night watch party in Missoula.

Tranel, a former Olympic rower, entered electoral politics with a Republican run for the Public Service Commission in 2004, but has since switched parties, running as a Democrat for the commission in 2020 and then for Congress this year. Citing her legal work serving the office of Montana Consumer Counsel, challenging NorthWestern Energy before the PSC and representing renewable energy projects, Tranel has presented herself as an anti-corporatist litigator and a foil to Zinke, who took consulting work in the oil and gas sector after leaving federal office.

Much of her campaign focused on attacking Zinke’s record at Interior, which included a recent finding by a Trump-appointed inspector general that he misled investigators about a Whitefish land deal connected to a Halliburton executive, and his general coziness with the fossil fuel industry against the backdrop of climate change.

Even in admitting defeat, Tranel still had her sights set on her opponent.

“The fact of the election does not erase the corruption of Ryan Zinke,” she said Thursday.

Lamb, the Libertarian, unsuccessfully ran for state Senate in 2020. He first found a public platform as a supporter of the Bundy family during the series of federal trials arising from the 2016 Malheur standoff. A father of 12 raised in an Amish-Mennonite community in Indiana, Lamb made reducing the role of the federal government in just about every aspect of American life a core tenet of his campaign.

Even with his connections to the far-right Bundys and his avowedly hard-line anti-abortion views, he found a welcoming campaign companion in Tranel, generating concern among Republicans that he could play a spoiler to Zinke by peeling off Republican votes. The two attended numerous candidate forums together, and the Montana Democratic Party lauded Lamb’s campaign, writing in an October release that Lamb was “connecting with voters across the district, sharing his story as a father of 12 and a small business owner.”

Outside PACs presumably interested in boosting Tranel’s chances also presented Lamb as a more principled conservative alternative to Zinke, who began his career in the Legislature as a relative moderate.

Zinke will return to Congress alongside fellow Republican Matt Rosendale, who handily won his race in the state’s eastern district. Zinke will now travel to Washington for new member orientation and to receive committee assignments, his team said.