Ryan Zinke

Former congressman and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke narrowly won the Republican primary on Thursday in the inaugural race to represent Montana’s Western congressional district. He will face off against Democrat Monica Tranel on the November ballot.

The results, posted Thursday evening on the Montana secretary of state’s website, came almost two days after polls closed due to a physical error with primary ballots in Lincoln County. Election officials there have been hand-counting ballots since Tuesday, a painstaking process that concluded the race with a tight margin between Zinke and his top Republican contender, Al Olszewski. 

As of the latest count, Zinke appears to have finished with 42% of the vote, compared to Olszewski’s 40%. The third-place Republican finisher, Mary Todd, tallied 10% of the vote. 

Zinke publicly declared victory before all votes were counted in Lincoln County, having held a roughly 1,000-vote lead over Olszewski since Tuesday night. In a statement posted on Facebook, Zinke said his win came in spite of critical messaging and attack ads from Republicans and Democrats throughout the primary.

“Thank you Western Montana for your confidence that America can be fixed and for ignoring the political BS,” said Zinke, who also thanked former President Donald Trump, Gov. Greg Gianforte and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines for their endorsements. “We have a great team and dedicated volunteers who believe in American values. I look forward to working with Congressman Rosendale on solving the hard issues that face America and the Great State of Montana. One State. Two US Representatives, one fight for freedom.”

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The nine candidates in Montana’s new Western congressional district — a jagged ‘C’ encompassing Glacier County, Kalispell, Missoula, the Bitterroot Valley, Butte and Gallatin County — are as ideologically varied as the population they seek to represent. Which candidate can unlock House District 1’s political identity?

Olszewski conceded the race to Zinke shortly after the Lincoln County votes were tallied. 

“I’m honored by the over 30,000 voters who supported me in this election. We started as [a] big underdog and ran a race based on the conservative principles of our Republican Party. However it’s clear that we will not be victorious in this race,” the statement said. “I want to thank all my supporters and team for their help. Together we accomplished so much and I want to thank my family who was with me throughout it all.”

In a statement released Wednesday in anticipation of Zinke’s victory, Democratic nominee Tranel sought to make a clear distinction between herself and her Republican opponent.

“Montanans are seeking a leader who will show up to every town and every county ready to listen to real-life concerns and experiences, and who will work together for common-sense solutions,” Tranel said. “Ryan Zinke had multiple chances to show up for Montanans, but instead of serving Montana, he served himself. Zinke’s record of corruption has contributed to a primary result that shows his own party does not trust him.”

Olszewski and other Republican candidates spent months seeking to frame Zinke as an insufficiently conservative candidate who was out of step with the party’s base. Zinke, who rarely showed up to Republican candidate functions and never joined his opponents on a debate stage, was largely silent about the criticisms against him until the late stages of the primary, when he began releasing advertisements that punched back against Olszewski specifically. 

Of the roughly $3 million Zinke raised since announcing his candidacy in April 2021, he reported having $878,677 remaining cash on hand in the most recent May campaign finance reports. 

Earlier today, before Lincoln County began publishing its results, Zinke’s campaign sought to raise more money for a possible recount. 

“I wouldn’t be asking you this if our situation wasn’t absolutely dire,” the fundraising email read. “We need this to expose the fraudulent election tactics that Democrats used in this race.”

In his celebratory Facebook post when the election results appeared to be in his favor, the candidate struck a different tone. 

“[T]hank you to all the volunteers in Lincoln County who worked tirelessly to hand count ballots and ensure a secure election,” Zinke said. 

The results of the primary election will be certified by the Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen in July. The general election will be held Nov. 7. 

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.