At the beginning of his political career, Ryan Zinke was a Prius-driving state senator from Whitefish with a moderate Republican persona who courted support from conservationists and voted against an anti-abortion measure in the Montana Legislature. Part of Zinke’s image as a former Navy SEAL was his willingness to forge an independent political identity resistant to outside pressure, either from Democrats or his own party’s right flank. 

At the beginning of her political career, Monica Tranel, then a Republican, was a policy-minded utility attorney running for a seat on the state Public Service Commission and looking to right the ship after 1997’s deregulation of Montana’s energy business. She would soon go to work as legislative counsel for U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, Montana’s longest serving Republican senator.

Almost two decades later, Zinke and Tranel are now opponents in the race for Montana’s newly created western U.S. House district, a Republican-leaning assemblage of 16 counties that most political observers nonetheless believe represents Democrats’ best chance of winning a federal race in Montana this year. 

Zinke rode a political meteor from the state capitol to Congress in 2015 and then to a cabinet appointment under President Donald Trump, becoming one of the state’s highest-profile Republicans during a secretarial tenure marred by numerous ethics investigations. Tranel, meanwhile, built a reputation as a pro-consumer energy litigator, ran for Public Service Commission again — this time as a Democrat, but again unsuccessfully — and is now the state party’s de facto standard bearer heading into November. 

Zinke, who served as secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior from 2017 to 2019, still faces attacks from the GOP’s right flank, though he’s running for office under Trump’s imprimatur and with some of the former president’s swamp-draining rhetorical style. His first legislative priority, he’s said, is a bill that would make it easier to fire federal employees. 

Tranel has positioned herself as a populist crusader who can take on Zinke and bring Democratic ideals to Congress just as she’s faced down corporations like NorthWestern Energy in the courtroom. She’s also made explicit ouvertures to independents and Republicans, banking that her policy acumen and Zinke’s highly visible public record will be enough for some voters to split their tickets. 

And then there’s John Lamb, the idiosyncratic Libertarian who’s received a profile boost via numerous shared public appearances with Tranel, even as his connections to the Bundy clan and self-described “radical” anti-abortion views mark his campaign as an outlier. If Lamb can convince voters that he provides a more authentically conservative alternative, his presence in the race could be an issue for Zinke, who won his primary against hard-right former state Sen. Al Olszewski by only about two points. 

Democratic U.S. House candidate Monica Tranel grabs the microphone from Republican candidate Ryan Zinke’s hands during a town hall at Missoula’s DoubleTree on Aug. 8. The debate was hosted by City Club Missoula. Credit: Antonio Ibarra / Missoulian. May not be republished without permission of Missoulian.

The district — technically, the state’s First Congressional District, or MT-01 — includes 16 counties, two Native American reservations and about 542,000 people. The new district is not considered as competitive as Democrats on the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission wanted, but still provides a path for a strong candidate under the right circumstances. 

Combining reliably Democratic population centers like Missoula, Bozeman and Butte (though not Helena — a point of some consternation during the redistricting process) with reliably Republican areas like the Flathead and Bitterroot valleys, the district would have gone to Trump in 2020 by about 7 points, according to the Cook Political Report. But U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, would have carried the district in 2018 by 10 points. Cook revised its rating of the district from “likely” to “leans” Republican in October. 

Zinke has historically proven to be an adept fundraiser, and that trend has continued through the current campaign. His haul has dwarfed that of his opponents, both in the primary and general election, though Tranel is beginning to gain ground in the money race.

In the last quarterly reporting period, which concluded Sept. 30, Zinke raised $1.7 million and spent $2.1 million, leaving about $500,000 on hand. Tranel, meanwhile, brought in $1.1 million and spent more than $900,000, leaving $353,000 in the bank. Both candidates have benefited from outside investment in the race: More Jobs, Less Government, a PAC formerly affiliated with Montana’s Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, has spent almost $1 million on ads attacking Tranel and boosting Zinke, while Big Sky Voters PAC has reported about $700,000 in independent expenditures attacking Zinke or supporting Tranel.

“Zinke is not an overly strong Republican. Monica Tranel isn’t Jon Tester, but I don’t think you need to be Jon Tester to beat Zinke.”

Utah Valley University political scientist Kal Munis

2022 is the first election cycle in decades in which Montanans will send two representatives to Congress. For years, the state has been relegated to a single at-large district, but population growth marked by the 2020 census meant the state regained the second U.S. House seat it lost after the 1990 census. The race for Montana’s new eastern district features Democrat Penny Ronning and independent Gary Buchanan challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, a Republican.

By the numbers, the western district is Zinke’s race to lose, especially in a midterm environment expected to favor Republicans nationally. But Lamb and Tranel have put Zinke in an awkward position: Mollifying the right wing might shore up Zinke’s support with the GOP base, but could also alienate the independent voters who can swing a close election. If turnout is as high and as consistently right-leaning as it was in 2020, when Republicans dominated the ballot, that might not matter. But if 2022 is a more typically low-turnout year, Zinke could have a fight on his hands, said Kal Munis, a Utah Valley University political scientist originally from Montana who still tracks the state’s politics.

“Zinke is not an overly strong Republican,” Munis said. “Monica Tranel isn’t Jon Tester, but I don’t think you need to be Jon Tester to beat Zinke.”

RYAN ZINKE

Zinke, by now, has led a long political career, built initially on the strength of his multigenerational roots in Whitefish, his 23-year tenure in the military and his self-presentation as a pragmatic Teddy Roosevelt Republican. In doing so, he’s created a generally well-known record: the sharp-jawed, straight-backed high school football champion, the elite military man, the Interior secretary who came into office on horseback and resigned after myriad ethics probes, the Montanan whose wife declared primary residence in California, triggering his critics’ suspicion of outsider politicians. 

He exudes a back-slapping, beer-drinking frontier machismo. While on a ride-along with tribal law enforcement on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation during an October campaign stop, he gleefully told officers and an MTFP reporter a story from adolescence about getting whacked with pool cues at a bar in Browning, being tossed out, and going back in for more.

“Lesson learned,” he concluded.

Ryan Zinke, Republican candidate for Montana’s western U.S. House district, meets with tribal law enforcement in Browning on Oct. 14 Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit / Montana Free Press

He served two terms in the state Senate, in 2009 and 2011, before running for lieutenant governor on a ticket under conservative Republican Neil Livingstone, whose campaign website featured an image of the candidates posed back-to-back, armed with pistols, next to the slogan “Taking Aim at Regulation.”

Livingstone didn’t emerge from the primary. Zinke quickly launched a Super PAC, Special Operations for America, and began building his profile in national Republican circles. He stepped down from the PAC in 2013, then mounted his first run for Congress in what was at the time Montana’s only U.S. House district. He defeated Corey Stapleton, Matt Rosendale and Elsie Arntzen in the primary, and cruised past Democrat John Lewis in the general election. He established another PAC, SEAL PAC, served his term, and easily won re-election before receiving the nod to serve as Trump’s Interior secretary. 

As Interior secretary, he racked up 18 ethics investigations, a liability that Tranel and Montana Democrats have seized on in the current campaign. 

His announcement, alongside then-Florida governor and Senate hopeful Rick Scott, that Scott’s state would be exempt from new offshore drilling led to a probe into whether Zinke violated the Hatch Act, which restricts political campaign activity by federal employees. A top Interior Department scientist named Joel Clement filed a whistleblower complaint after he said he was improperly reassigned for publicly discussing the impacts of climate change. Zinke hosted an executive from Halliburton at Interior Department offices as part of negotiations for a land deal in Whitefish that involved a foundation established by Zinke, generating an Inspector General report that found he violated the ethical duties of his position. A similar finding was reached in a separate investigation into how Zinke came to buck staff recommendations and block a tribal casino project in Connecticut — a decision he made following discussions with a Nevada lawmaker and lobbyists from Las Vegas-based MGM Resorts. 

“There’s a couple of billboards of me rowing a boat. And the reason why I did that is that a boat has two oars. I will say that I’m the right oar. I think we gotta go hard right to send the boat forward. But a boat uses both oars. And if you just use one, you go in circles.”

Republican House candidate Ryan Zinke

In many instances, including the Hatch Act probe regarding Rick Scott, investigators were unable to reach a conclusion and closed the case. Clement was not granted federal whistleblower protections. And despite several referrals, the Justice Department has never acted on any of the complaints.

Of the Whitefish land talks, Zinke said that his hosting of then-Halliburton CEO David Lesar at Interior offices to offer “background” on the land did not overlap with his role as secretary. “And there’s no financial gain” associated with the land deal, he said.

Zinke maintains that all the investigations were politically motivated, the result of blowback from inside a department he was intent to overhaul. Zinke initiated a massive reorganization that saw, among other changes, jobs cut, Bureau of Land Management headquarters briefly relocated to Colorado, expanded energy leasing, and a shrinking of national monuments, most publicly Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah. And he’s said that anybody can initiate a federal investigation, no matter their motivations or credibility.

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

“I know what they were doing. And they knew what they were doing,” Zinke told MTFP. “And I’m not the only one, by the way, that had investigations. Almost every one of Trump’s appointees had a multitude of investigations.”

‘WE’RE JUST GONNA TAKE THE MONEY AWAY’ 

Zinke’s tumultuous tenure at Interior has informed a 2022 campaign that partly echoes Trump’s aggression toward the institutions of federal government. He said he asked the Assiniboine tribe if he could participate in a sweat lodge ceremony before going back to D.C. — if he wins — to cleanse himself before entering such a toxic environment. His campaign’s signature policy proposal, the FEAR Act, would cap the number of years non-military citizens can work for the federal government, cap federal salaries, and make it easier to fire federal employees with cause. In debates, he’s connected the proposal with his own treatment at the hands of “weaponized investigators.” 

At campaign stops, he asks attendees to give an example of a government agency or branch that has the full trust and confidence of the American people.

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“Rarely does someone say, ‘Well, it’s this.’ Most commonly, the answer is crickets,” he told MTFP. 

He said he thinks that as a returning congressman he can get an appointment to the powerful House Appropriations Committee, and that if he and other Republicans take back the lower chamber this November, the House will assert its “power of the purse” and go after 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 in Ravalli County, referring to a new division of the Environmental Protection Agency tasked with overseeing a $3 billion climate justice program authorized as part of President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, one of Zinke’s regular targets. “We’re gonna have to rip their heart out.”

But Zinke’s bluster about the federal government and political careerists belies the fact that he is himself a shrewd political insider.

To begin with, he’s worked as a consultant on and off since his time in the state Legislature, working for clients ranging from a penny stock company to a gun firm. His first PAC paid fees to his own consultancy, and his second spent much more on fees to conservative political strategy firms than it did on the candidates it backed. He’s cultivated a relationship with Fidelity National Financial Chairman Bill Foley, a billionaire business mogul who lives part-time in Whitefish, that has financially buoyed multiple Zinke campaigns. Fidelity executives and employees have given Zinke’s campaigns around $186,000 since 2013. Shortly after leaving Interior, Zinke took on consulting clients including oil services giant ConocoPhillips and a gold mining company pursuing projects on BLM land.

Ryan Zinke, Republican candidate for Montana’s western U.S. House district, attends a police ride-along in Browning on Oct. 14 Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit / Montana Free Press

“I consulted where my expertise lies,” Zinke told MTFP of his consulting experience. “And by the way, many secretaries have consulted for ConocoPhillips. So it wasn’t out of the ordinary.”

He’s also capable of ideological and aesthetic recalibration.

“He read people very well,” said Dave Lewis, a former longtime Republican lawmaker who shared a state Senate committee assignment with Zinke. 

Among the best known anecdotes of Zinke’s state legislative tenure was that he drove a Toyota Prius, an oddity in a Legislature — and especially in a Republican caucus — more typically transported around the state in trucks and SUVs. Marketing himself as a pro-public lands, pro-conservation conservative a la Teddy Roosevelt, he sought and received an endorsement from the Montana chapter of the League of Conservation Voters in 2009, fought an effort to gut state environmental regulations and carried a bill to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Glacier National Park.

“Right when I met him, we were riding together to a meeting. I didn’t know of many Republicans who drove Priuses,” said Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, who’s served in the Legislature since 2011 and has become a close friend of Zinke’s. “When I stepped up to his car, I was in disbelief. He said, ‘Hey, I don’t care.’” 

In 2016, Zinke resigned his position as a Republican National Convention Delegate over a platform plank calling for transfer of federal land to states, a third-rail position in Montana’s pro-public lands political environment. 

It was that image that led to cautious optimism by environmental interests when Zinke was picked for Interior, and part of the reason the blowback was so intense when he, more often than not, proved to be more focused on resource development than conservation. Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation ethic, in Zinke’s view, is “multiple use.” 

Zinke didn’t necessarily consider himself a moderate, Buttrey said, but got slapped with the label as lawmakers who do their homework tend to. Most of the bills he ran during his time in Montana’s statehouse addressed education or veterans issues, though he also carried several measures encouraging the development of microbreweries in the state. The Zinkes have long had an interest in opening a brewery in Whitefish. 

His early voting record occasionally ran him afoul of other conservative candidates and organizations. In his first year in office, he received a passing grade on a scorecard from pro-choice advocacy nonprofit NARAL, a badge of right-wing dishonor that would resurface in his 2014 primary against Stapleton, Rosendale and Arntzen, who tried to flank Zinke from the right. 

He also opposed civilian ownership of .50 caliber rifles, said Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association. 

“When he was in the Legislature, he and I had a conversation I think more than once where he was adamant that he thought that because he was a former Navy SEAL and knew about guns, that .50 caliber rifles should not be owned by civilians,” Marbut said. 

“He’s just not a guy that can be bullied, he’s going to do what he thinks is right. I’ve never known him to be a political hack. He was a SEAL for all those years, and when those guys are set on a mission, they follow through.”

State Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls

But by the time he ran for lieutenant governor, he told Marbut he had changed his position.

“That was a convenient election season kind of conversion,” Marbut said, “but I have to take him at his word.”

As with the gun issue, Zinke appeared to solidify his conservative bona fides as his career developed. By his first U.S. House primary, he was hosting an Obama birther on his radio show and vociferously asserting his opposition to abortion amid attacks from Stapleton, Rosendale and Arntzen

Buttrey said he believes Zinke says and does what he means.

“He’s just not a guy that can be bullied, he’s going to do what he thinks is right,” he said. “I’ve never known him to be a political hack. He was a SEAL for all those years, and when those guys are set on a mission, they follow through.”

But Buttrey allowed that it’s hard not to shift toward the edges when you step up to the national stage.

“The people that he’s talking to in and out of the state, he’s hearing more in this politically charged world where it’s hard not to go a little right or a little left,” he said. 

Since Zinke emerged from the Trump administration, SEAL PAC, the second political fundraising organization he launched, has become a major booster to the campaigns of Trump-allied Republicans in Congress — many of them not veterans, contrary to the advertised mission of the PAC. These include House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, and Wyoming’s Harriet Hageman, who ousted Rep. Liz Cheney a year after Cheney’s vote to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riots. 

Publicly, the extent to which Zinke is willing to defend the former president varies. He said he accepts that Joe Biden is the current president, but in an interview with MTFP he wouldn’t fully endorse or deny Trump’s allegations of election theft.

“I believe it’s formula in elections,” Zinke said. “I believe the media was against President Trump. I think COVID was against President Trump. I think [Facebook’s Mark] Zuckerberg was against President Trump. There were a lot of elements. And of course, don’t forget the FBI suppressing the Hunter Biden story.”

Zinke said of Trump that the two enjoyed a good relationship but didn’t always agree. The president won some arguments, Zinke won others, he said. 

“There is only one Donald J. Trump. And what people have to realize is that they didn’t hire an angel,” Zinke said, adopting a subtle gangland-era Italian-American inflection. “They hired a New Yorker. He was a business guy.”

Many Republicans embraced Trump whether or not they really wanted to, according to former Montana lawmaker Dave Lewis. Lewis, who is treasurer for the decidedly non-Trumpy campaign of independent U.S. House candidate Gary Buchanan in Montana’s eastern district, said he voted for Trump twice, but that he lost faith after Trump’s questioning of the election. 

Zinke, he said, is “very clearly a strong loyalist.” 

Today, Zinke maintains that he’s more “red, white and blue” than red or blue. He contends that Democrats have abandoned the country and its allies, but says the party still plays a part in governance. He’s even adopted his own boat metaphor. (Tranel, a two-time Olympic rower, has made her role in the middle of the “Olympic Eight” a key part of her campaign.)

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Western district U.S. House candidates on the issues

Here’s what the general election candidates for Montana’s western district house seat told us when we put an issue-focused questionnaire to them during the spring primary. Compare their answers — and tell us what more you want to know.

“There’s a couple of billboards of me rowing a boat,” he said at a meeting with Ravalli County commissioners this month. “And the reason why I did that is that a boat has two oars. I will say that I’m the right oar. I think we gotta go hard right to send the boat forward. But a boat uses both oars. And if you just use one, you go in circles.”

MONICA TRANEL

To the extent that Zinke has moved through the rarified rooms of state and national politics with relative ease, Tranel has largely stayed on the periphery. Across a long legal career played out largely in the telecommunications and energy spaces, she’s established a reputation as an aggressive, exacting litigator with little patience for political niceties. 

“Monica, she’s not a slap-on-the-back kind of person,” said Ken Toole, a former Democratic state lawmaker and PSC commissioner. “She’s serious, she has her position, her facts, and by God she’s going where she’s going.”

The strategy of the more sophisticated, national “green” groups in litigation and rate disputes was to negotiate with utilities, Toole said. Tranel’s approach was to beat them.

“She was absolutely tenacious,” he said. 

Monica Tranel, Democratic candidate for Montana’s western U.S. House district, speaks at a candidate forum in Deer Lodge on Oct. 11. Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit / Montana Free Press

As an attorney, she’s represented telecommunications companies and renewable energy projects, worked for Montana Consumer Counsel, which represents the state’s consumers in rate cases, and successfully fought the so-called pre-approval statute that allowed utilities like NorthWestern Energy to petition the PSC for approval of energy projects before actually purchasing or building them, passing the risk of potential bad investments to ratepayers, opponents argued. Renewable energy development is an economic opportunity for Montana, she said, not the job-killer Zinke has made it out to be. 

“What I have learned is to follow the money,” Tranel told MTFP. “Whose interests are being served by a specific outcome? People do what’s in their own economic interest.”

Tranel has focused much of her campaign on attacking Zinke’s record of friendliness to oil and gas interests and resume of ethics probes. Her campaign ran a television ad listing Zinke’s investigations and comparing him to a snake on a plane, while Tranel is pictured carrying a snake in a shovel. 

“I’ve spent my career taking on snakes like Ryan Zinke,” Tranel says in the ad. “In Congress, I’ll take on anyone who tries to rip off Montana.”

In debates, she’s pointed out that around three-fourths of her itemized individual donations have come from Montanans, while Zinke can say the same for only about 32% of his donations. She seems generally uncowed by Zinke’s SEAL bravado, notably accusing him of lying about her record and grabbing the microphone from his hand the first time they appeared on a televised stage together. 

“Zinke just wants to hang around with his rich boys,” she told MTFP. “He doesn’t want to serve Montana, he wants to serve himself.”

The state Democratic Party has followed suit, promoting an event in Bozeman earlier this month with Joel Clement, the Interior Department climate scientist whose primary complaint about his reassignment alleged that Zinke’s reorganization of the department was a politically motivated purge.

“The Democrats have always been the party of the working class. But that sense has been lost a little bit.”

Democratic House candidate Monica Tranel

“You expect a little nonsense from the leadership when they first come in, because they’re not familiar with the agency,” Clement said at the event. “But the things that started coming out about Ryan Zinke really brought people to their knees in terms of morale.”

Zinke’s campaign team, shortly before the event, went after Clement on Twitter, calling him a “petulant child” who quit because he didn’t like his boss. 

Republicans have gone after Tranel’s record as well. Tranel, despite railing against short-term rentals as a proximate cause of Montana’s housing affordability crisis, holds between $10,000 and $50,000 stock in Airbnb, according to disclosure documents. She’s since promised to put her assets in a blind trust if elected. And while she’s not quite Zinke-level wealthy — his reported assets are between $8.6 million and $35.6 million, largely in the form of rental properties — a successful legal career has ensured that Tranel is no pauper. Her investments and assets total between $2.7 million and $6.5 million.

Aside from bird-dogging Zinke’s record, Tranel has focused her campaign on affordability and climate. She’s proposed to challenge consolidated monopolies and corporate property investors and improve the lot of American workers through support of the PRO Act, national Democrats’ proposed bolstering of labor laws. 

“The Democrats have always been the party of the working class,” she told MTFP. “But that sense has been lost a little bit.”

While both Tranel and Zinke agree that energy costs contribute to inflation, she places the blame with the wealthy owners of oil companies, not regulations on fossil fuel development. Gas, she said, will be part of the country’s energy mix in the near future. But the transition to renewables is imminent, she said, and potentially profitable for local tax bases, pointing to a green hydrogen project in Butte, a solar project in Beaverhead County and the planned addition of a wind farm to Colstrip. 

Zinke has argued that renewables do not offer a dependable enough energy source to fully transition from fossil fuels. 

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The divergent energy visions of Montana’s U.S. House candidates

U.S. House candidates Ryan Zinke and Monica Tranel have both worked on energy issues on public and private payrolls. Zinke, a Republican, underscores the importance of “American energy independence” and emphasizes the role of fossil fuels in that vision. Tranel, a Democrat, prioritizes a transition to clean energy that “has to start quickly and accelerate.”

Tranel was born in Wyoming but raised in eastern Montana. Her first run for elected office came in 2004, when Tranel, then a staff attorney for the PSC, ran for a seat on the commission as a Republican. The fallout of 1997’s energy deregulation — which saw Montana Power Co. part out its assets and prices skyrocket for consumers — was still fresh in the minds of Tranel and others in the energy sector. 

Tranel now has made her skepticism of corporate monopoly and advocacy for consumers a central tenet of her campaign. The approach, though, has roots even in her Republican PSC candidacy. 

“The best insurance the PSC can provide to ratepayers is to make sure ratepayers do not absorb the utilities’ costs that ratepayers are not legally obligated to absorb,” she told the Montana Standard in 2004.

The PSC run didn’t pan out, but she soon found another opportunity as a staffer for Conrad Burns, Montana’s Republican U.S. senator, who was heavily involved in federal telecommunications work. Tranel, earlier in her legal career, was primarily a telecoms attorney. 

“I was surprised she worked for Burns,” said Dennis Lopach, another former PSC attorney who at various times has fought against and for Tranel’s side in the courtroom. “But at the time, it was a great opportunity for a young telecom lawyer because he was right in the middle of legislative efforts to reform the Telecommunications Act.”

That experience gives Tranel a more visibly non- or bipartisan record than an average Montana Democrat. In an interview with MTFP, she sidestepped questions about whether or how her ideology has shifted, but said she’s generally not political. 

“Like most Montanans, I’m not particularly political,” she said. “I’m certainly not partisan.”

By 2020, Tranel was running for the commission as a Democrat. But on the current campaign trail she’s nonetheless sought to emphasize her credibility with Republicans and the Democratic Party’s moderate wing, imploring voters on the right to not support Zinke just because he has an R next to his name on the ballot. 

Credit: Photo-illustration by Melissa McFarlin / MTFP

She’s expressed unequivocal support for funding law enforcement and spoken of the need to address fentanyl, one of the GOP’s top talking points. And while she’s declined to point an exclusive finger at the southern border, as Republicans have, she allowed at a recent candidate forum in Deer Lodge that the “precursors to fentanyl are being made in Mexico and brought across the border.” 

Tranel has appeared on conserative talk radio, nabbed endorsements from moderate Republican figures like former Gov. Marc Racicot and Democrats who made careers on running to the middle, namely former Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus.

At her numerous campaign stops, not every voter agrees with everything she says. In Deer Lodge, an older couple approached her after the forum to explain that they’re not comfortable with abortion. Tranel explained that she’s a Catholic, named for St. Monica, but that she believes abortion is a decision best left to individuals, not the government. 

“I might not always get it right, we might not always agree, but I’ll show up, I’ll take my licks,” she said in her concluding remarks at the forum.

THE JOHN LAMB EFFECT

Tranel, early in the campaign, announced that she would hold debates in each of the district’s 16 counties and two reservations at least once, and invited Zinke to participate. Zinke’s campaign agreed to only three debates, all televised. In response, Tranel hammered a narrative positioning Zinke as fearful of public scrutiny. 

But the race’s other candidate has dutifully appeared by her side at each of the engagements: John Lamb, the Libertarian farmer and father of 12 who grew up in an Amish-Mennonite community in Indiana before eventually settling near Norris. 

Lamb is the race’s ultimate confounding variable. Despite total opposition to abortion, vocal defense of the Bundy familiy — he was a fixture outside court hearings related to the Malheur standoff — and few policy prescriptions that aren’t to simply limit the federal government’s role in just about every major facet of American life, he’s formed something of a unified front with Tranel. 

“Monica, she’s not a slap-on-the-back kind of person. She’s serious, she has her position, her facts, and by God she’s going where she’s going.”

former Democratic state lawmaker and PSC commissioner KEN TOOLE

“I would rather see Monica in there in some ways [than Zinke], if she’s gonna win,” Lamb told MTFP. “She’s a small-town, hometown-type person, she’s not a politician. She says what she means. I strongly disagree with her on her global warming-type things, but she stands with what she stands with.”

At the debates, Tranel and Lamb avoid rebutting each other, preferring to tee off on the absent Zinke, whom Lamb considers to be roughly as liberal as Tranel but less honest.

“When there’s a Libertarian on the ballot, you’re worried about potentially siphoning away Republican votes, and we’re in a position right now where that could happen,” said Munis, the political scientist. 

Lamb is a potentially compromising foil to Zinke, Munis said. For a certain segment of Montana conservative, Lamb represents just about everything Zinke isn’t, at least outwardly: He has no ties to outside money, he’s fundamentally religious, even more skeptical of the federal government than Zinke, and above all is extremely consistent, if consistently extreme. 

“He’s not going to do Montana any good with his policies,” Lamb said. “He’s only gonna make the government bigger, in my opinion.”

Zinke, meanwhile, has retained some of the comparatively moderate positions that he established early in his career, even with the Trump endorsement and all his talk about the “deep state.” While he’s still adamantly opposed to abortion and has gone after Tranel for “hiding behind” the state Constitution’s privacy protections for abortion, he doesn’t support an all-out abortion ban, he said. 

“How do you legislate dire circumstances?” he said in his MTFP interview. “And there are dire circumstances. There’s incest, rape, all sorts of dire circumstances. We should focus on over-the-counter birth control and access to education and those types of things.”

Tranel, for her part, has attempted to tie Zinke to the Montana GOP’s hard line on abortion and the possibility of a congressional vote on the national 15-week abortion ban proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina.

Monica Tranel, Democratic candidate for Montana’s western U.S. House district, John Lamb, the district’s Libertarian candidate, and Deer Lodge Chief Administrative Officer Jordan Green speak at a candidate forum in Deer Lodge on Oct. 11. Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit / Montana Free Press

“Does [Zinke] decide what a dire circumstance is?” Tranel asked in her interview with MTFP. “Am I supposed to call him up?”

And while Zinke said in an earlier debate that he wants “no part of” the renewables-heavy energy mix that Tranel has envisioned, he maintains he’s not dead-set on hydrocarbons and isn’t an outright climate change denier. 

The hair-splitting has left him with a relatively narrow lane. Zinke has never had consolidated support among Republicans, Munis noted, but in his previous congressional runs he had the luxury of competing for a single at-large district that included ruby-red eastern Montana. So long as he made it out of the primary, which he was able to do in the 2014 race after his competitors split the hard-right vote, he didn’t have to worry about the general, which he won by 15 points.

Now he’s in a more competitive district. At every step over the last year, he’s had to find a way to appease the right while also courting viability in a general election. In the June primary, he nearly lost to Flathead-area surgeon Al Olszewski, who positioned himself as the true Trump-style conservative and attacked Zinke over his part-time California residence and variable legislative record.

“He’s in a really tough spot of having to not alienate those people while also exposing himself as being nowhere near the orthodox conservative candidate that, say, John Lamb is,” Munis said. 

The Zinke campaign appears sensitive to the dynamic, branding Lamb as a closet liberal in an effort to dissuade conservatives from defecting. Lamb said Zinke even asked him to drop out of the race before a debate in Missoula.

Heather Swift, the spokesperson for Zinke’s campaign, said this week that Lamb told Zinke in Missoula he wasn’t seriously expecting to get elected. Zinke, she said, joked that if that was the case, Lamb might as well drop out and endorse him. 

She also said that the organs of Democratic political power are working to boost Lamb’s chances. Indeed, the Montana Democratic Party in press releases has on several occasions given kudos to Lamb, writing in October that he was “connecting with voters across the district, sharing his story as a father of 12 and a small business owner.”

“I would rather see Monica in there in some ways [than Zinke], if she’s gonna win. She’s a small-town, hometown-type person, she’s not a politician. She says what she means. I strongly disagree with her on her global warming-type things, but she stands with what she stands with.”

Libertarian House candidate John Lamb

A D.C.-based organization called American Center has also produced mailers and online ads painting Lamb as the true conservative in a race against a Republican-in-name-only bureaucrat.

“I’m not just trying to put the Democrat in,” Lamb said. “My goal is to get my message out there to people and give them that third option.”

The race’s ultimate determinant will be turnout, Munis said. The median Montana voter, he said, is a “nominal Republican.” If turnout nears the high-water mark of 2020, Democrats may again get their doors blown off, he said. But in 2018, some Democratic candidates would have won a hypothetical election in what’s now the western district. And in 2020, Tranel herself was only four points behind Republican Jennifer Fielder in a PSC district that shares many of the current House district’s counties.

But races aren’t decided by hypothetical median voters. The political identity of Montana, as with its candidates, is mutable. There’s a version of this race that would seem to confirm that Republicans have consolidated control in the state — one where a sometimes-moderate Trump appointee wins despite years of attacks from both the left and right. And there’s a version where a former Republican can reclaim a foothold for Montana Democrats with a message of aggressive government oversight of big business, perhaps aided by the presence of a deeply religious Libertarian who believes that Zinke is actually a liberal. 

And maybe there’s a version where John Lamb wins.

“I’m doing better in this race than I thought I was going to,” he said.


CORRECTION: This article was updated Oct. 31, 2022, to correct the following inaccurate statement: “… in 2020, some Democratic candidates would have won a hypothetical election in what’s now the western district.” The year in which some Democratic candidates would have won a hypothetical election in what’s now the western district was 2018.

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