Header: Candidates for Montana's Western U.S. House seat Monica Tranel and Ryan Zinke twice met in debates last week (Courtesy Montana Television Network)

The candidates for Montana’s Western U.S. House seat faced off in the public forum twice last week, tangling over abortion and the economy and dissecting each other’s attack lines as Nov. 8 approaches. 

The debates, one held Thursday by Lee Newspapers and Montana Public Radio and another Saturday by the Montana Television Network, mark the second and third times that Democratic energy attorney Monica Tranel and Republican former Congressman and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke shared a stage during the campaign. Libertarian candidate John Lamb appeared in the first debate, but was left out of the second by MTN. 

Tranel and Zinke covered much of the same ground in last week’s debates as they did when they first met in August: abortion, climate change, affordability, election fraud narratives and the multiple ethics investigations stemming from Zinke’s stint as Interior Secretary under President Donald Trump. National politics were never far away, with frequent invocation of names like Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell. Lamb continued to hammer at his vision for minimal federal government. 

The district, which includes much of Montana’s western third, has a slight Republican lean, according to a Montana Free Press analysis of past election results. That makes Tranel a slight underdog and she implored voters in Saturday’s MTN debate “to vote the way we did in the Montana I grew up in, where we vote for people, not party.”

Zinke, meanwhile, has looked to separate himself from the Republican party’s most extreme elements while still embracing the party line on the southern border, the “Swamp,” renewable energy and pandemic-related mandates. 

Both major party candidates sought to emphasize their Montananness and criticize the other as out of step with an amorphous set of inherent Montana values. 

“I am from Montana, I live in Montana, I’m going to die in Montana, so don’t ever tell me that I’m not a Montanan,” said Zinke, who has come under fire for his wife’s declaration on tax paperwork that her primary residence is in California.

“I am uniquely suited to meet this moment,” said Tranel, who was born in Wyoming but raised in eastern Montana. “This is my home. I’ve spent my entire professional career here.

“I am from Montana, I live in Montana, I’m going to die in Montana, so don’t ever tell me that I’m not a Montanan.”

Ryan Zinke, Republican candidate for Montana’s Western U.S. House district

Montana, which had for decades been relegated to a single Congressional district, was awarded a second U.S. House seat following the 2020 U.S. Census. The western district, drawn by the state redistricting commission last year, includes Butte, Bozeman and Missoula, as well the Bitterroot and Flathead valleys, but excludes Helena and Great Falls. In the state’s heavily GOP-favored eastern district, incumbent Republican Congressman Matt Rosendale is running against Democrat Penny Ronning and independent Gary Buchanan. Those three candidates also debated over the weekend. 

A pair of debates over just a few days produces a lot of material for voters to sift through so MTFP dove into a few of the biggest points of contention between Tranel, Zinke and Lamb: 

Abortion

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade and a constitutional challenge to state-level abortion restrictions passed last year have made abortion one of the U.S. House campaign’s top issues, especially for Democrats hoping the GOP’s hard stance on abortion will bring voters to their side.

Zinke has said that he does not support abortion, but also would not support a no-exceptions federal abortion ban.

“I am pro-life, but I also understand dire circumstances,” he said Saturday. “I am opposed to an outright ban, because it does not take into consideration very difficult decisions.”

He claimed Tranel supports abortion up to moments before birth, a position he called “barbaric.” Such procedures make up a tiny minority of abortions overall, and generally only occur when the fetus is not viable or the mother’s life is at risk. 

Tranel attacked Zinke for “using this moment of incredible heartbreak at the end of a pregnancy” as a political talking point and framed abortion as a freedom and privacy issue. Abortion is protected as a private medical precedure in Montana as a result of state Supreme Court precedent stemming from the state Constitution’s broad privacy provision.

Whoever wins the seat, Tranel said, will eventually have to take a vote on a federal abortion ban. 

“You’re going to have to vote up or down with Mitch McConnell, no exceptions, that’s where your party is,” she told Zinke. “You can’t dance on the head of a pin.” 

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, has signed onto a 15-week abortion ban carried by South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. Democratic Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester has said he opposes the bill, which includes exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

Lamb, a father of 12, said he is morally opposed to abortion and would vote to make it illegal.

Personal records 

Zinke has spent much of the campaign fending off attacks related to the 18 ethics investigations he faced while serving as Secretary of the Interior, a position he held under President Trump from 2017 until his resignation in 2019. The trend held in the debates last week as the topic was raised by both Tranel and debate moderators.

“I went through 18, including investigations on my socks, my dogs, my car,” Zinke said Saturday. 

Most recently, a Trump-appointed investigator at the Interior Department found Zinke lied to investigators in two probes: one into his foundation’s role in a Whitefish land deal connected to the chairman of oil company Halliburton and another related to a tribal gaming agreement in Connecticut he oversaw as Interior secretary. The Justice Department declined prosecution in both cases.

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Tranel, Zinke, and Lamb spar over abortion, climate and energy

The three candidates for Montana’s newly created western congressional district squared off in person for the first time at a candidate forum in Missoula, landing glancing blows and setting the stage for a race that will elevate Montana issues to the national stage and localize national political dynamics as the major parties vie for control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

This weekend, Zinke described those findings as merely suggesting that he “didn’t follow the employee’s manual.” He also criticized the inquiries as politically motivated responses to his attempts to shake up the Interior Department, where his agenda included shrinking national monuments and boosting fossil fuel production by rolling back regulations and accelerating energy leasing. 

“I’m a former SEAL officer, I don’t lie,” he said. “But neither am I going to be intimidated or bullied by biased investigators from the very department that I was trying to change.” 

Zinke has made going after bureaucrats a central tenet of his campaign. For example, he proposed what he is calling the FEAR Act, a bill that would make it easier to fire federal employees, who he compared this weekend to “college professors on steroids.” He tied the idea to his own ethics investigations, painting himself as a victim of “weaponized investigators” from within the deep state. 

Tranel said public workers deserve respect. At its heart, she said, she believes the U.S. is a nation that “buys into our institutions.”

“I think we need to talk about public service — our teachers, our law enforcement, people who do forest management — as a calling and a public service and I think we need to talk about it with honor and dignity,” she said.

“Everybody in America is entitled to due process, even Ryan Zinke.”

Monica Tranel, Democratic candidate for Montana’s Western U.S. House district

Zinke’s campaign has also attacked Tranel’s history, criticizing her for representing a man convicted of child sexual abuse on a due-proess appeal before the Montana Supreme Court.

The 2011 case saw her and another private attorney seeking to get a new trial for the man, who she argued received inadequate representation in his previous conviction. In a brief, she and another attorney argued their client’s former lawyer hadn’t interviewed witnesses or effectively prepared to defend the man in his initial trial.

Tranel said at Saturday’s debate that she represented the client solely on the grounds that his prior experience with the judicial system had violated his constitutional rights to a fair trial. 

“It had nothing to do with the underlying charges,” she said. “There was no set of circumstances where the person in question would have been released to roam the neighborhood streets free.

“Everybody in America is entitled to due process, even Ryan Zinke,” she added.

President Trump and Jan. 6

The candidates also fielded questions about the January 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol as Congress finalized the results of the 2020 presidential election, as well as the general chorus of unsubstantiated election fraud allegations that have emerged from supporters of former President Trump. 

Zinke called the January 6 riot a “blight on America.” Tranel went further, labeling the event as an “insurrection.”

“Jan. 6 was a blight on America, it was criminal, it was shameful, it was conduct unbecoming, it was destruction of government property, and yes, words have meaning, but was it an insurrection? No,” Zinke said. “I have personal experience dealing with insurrection and coups because I have fought overseas while those were going on.”

He said Montana’s elections are secure, but accused the FBI of putting “their finger on elections by making sure they make a phone call to Zuckerberg and have him suppress the Hunter Biden laptop” an apparent reference to Facebook’s decision to restrict the spread of a New York Post article published before the 2020 election that alleged corruption by then-presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son.

Zinke also attacked the recent federal raid of Trump’s Florida home Mar-a-Lago as a “junta squad.” That raid was authorized by a federal judge as part of an investigation into whether the former president improperly retained classified documents after leaving office.

Tranel criticized Zinke for a fundraising email his campaign sent out amid a Lincoln County recount in his close primary against former lawmaker Al Olszewski. That email said Zinke’s campaign needed money “to expose the fraudulent election tactics that Democrats used in this race.”

In a Facebook post published once Zinke’s lead became clear, he thanked election workers for ensuring the race’s security and conducting the recount. 

Tranel said elevating unsubstantiated claims of fraud compromises faith in elections and jeopardizes public workers.

“I have been talking in this district on the trail to elected county officials who are getting death threats in rural areas,” Tranel said. “These are women— they’re all women — that have been in these offices for decades, and they’re getting death threats because of the nonsense. “

Energy and the economy 

All three candidates said voters across the district are primarily concerned with affordability in their communities. Each, however, examined the issue with a different lens.

Zinke said the issue lies squarely within inflation, and put the blame at the feet of national Democrats. He said Democrats want more taxes and more spending, and that they want to force a transition to renewable energy that will raise prices. Hydrocarbons, he said, must be a part of the energy mix. 

“Any serious person who thinks about energy realizes we can’t run this state on wind power, pixie dust and hope and hydrogen,” he said.

Zinke said that perspective squares with what he hears on the trail. He talks to “real Montanans,” he said, “like businesses.” 

Tranel said that the energy transition is already upon us, and the state and country must embrace and innovate in the renewable sector to stave off climate change. Hurricane Ian has left the East Coast without power, she said, while Montana is battered by drought. Tranel also accused Zinke, who has consulted for clients in the fossil fuel sector since leaving his post at the Interior Department, as being bought and paid for by the oil industry.

“Every time you put gas in your tank, you think about how much of that money is going to Ryan Zinke’s pockets,” she said.

Tranel also argued that the bigger economic issue in the state is housing affordability. She supports ending speculative corporate ownership of homes. Moderators questioned Tranel for espousing this line while also holding stock in AirBnB. While Tranel didn’t directly address the apparent contradiction, she said she will commit to putting her assets in a blind trust while in Congress.

Lamb said decisions about Montana’s energy future should be left to the state.

“I don’t believe the federal government should be involved in this, this is up to Montana,” Lamb said.

The general election is Nov. 8, and ballots will be mailed to voters who are registered to vote absentee starting Oct. 14. 

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.