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July 13, 2023

Missoula Democrat Monica Tranel is back on the campaign trail, her sights set again on beating Ryan Zinke and representing Montana in Congress.

Tranel, a two-time Olympic rower and attorney known for tussling with NorthWestern Energy, announced Monday that she is seeking a rematch with incumbent Republican Zinke about eight months after her three-point loss to the former U.S. secretary of the Interior. She’s spent the rest of the week traveling the state’s western congressional district making her pitch, mixing a few metaphors along the way. 

“Two years ago, we set out to climb a high mountain, and together we came to a fork in the road. Election night of ’22 is not the end of our journey,” she told a crowd of about 60 mostly gray-haired supporters Wednesday at Kalispell’s Northwest Montana History Museum, the third stop of her budding campaign. “…For all of those people who are going to cast their first ballot in 2024, for everyone who feels as if their voice isn’t heard, for everyone who feels invisible, for the missing middle, I’m standing here tonight telling you I’ve made the decision to take a fork in the road that leads to the top of the mountain.” 

Tranel is the first Democrat to formally announce a campaign for the state’s western congressional district, which stretches from northwestern Montana down through the Democratic strongholds of Missoula, Bozeman and Butte, but nonetheless leans Republican, thanks in no small part to Flathead County, which Tranel lost to Whitefish native Zinke by more than 25 points in 2022.

She told Capitolized after her speech Wednesday that she was ready to take another run at Zinke almost as soon as her loss last November became clear

“I felt like [2022] was an awesome start,” she said. “We felt like we started something special. People across western Montana were super fired-up about our campaign.”

Zinke himself has yet to declare a bid for re-election, though it appears he will. Not so long ago, his name was floated as a possible 2024 challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, but Zinke appears to have backed off in deference to fellow former Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy, whom he endorsed for Tester’s seat earlier this month. And, the lack of a formal campaign launch notwithstanding, Zinke filed a statement of candidacy for the western district back in January. He would enter the race with almost $500,000 in his campaign war chest. 

A spokesperson for Zinke, Heather Swift, didn’t confirm whether Zinke would run again this cycle, but she implied as much and launched some criticism at Tranel.

“Monica Tranel had no ideas or accomplishments when she lost in 2022 and that hasn’t changed in the last six months,” Swift said in a text this week. “However, on the other side of the ballot Ryan Zinke has introduced legislation to expand access to national parks, delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear, and improve mental health care for veterans. He is securing tens of millions of dollars for Montana infrastructure, law enforcement and tribal youth projects, and is getting the job done for Montana.”

Tranel hasn’t yet reported her latest campaign finances to the Federal Election Commission, but she told reporters Wednesday that she raised $200,000 in campaign donations this week alone. 

A longtime utility attorney, Wyoming-born Tranel ran for Public Service Commission as a Republican in 2004, worked for Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, made another failed run for PSC in 2020 as a Democrat, and ran for Congress in 2022. 

In her speech Wednesday, Tranel, sporting a lavender dress, pledged to represent the state’s “purple roots,” casting herself in a line of prominent Montana politicians from Jeannette Rankin (a Republican, albeit in the 1916 sense) to Burton K. Wheeler (a pro-labor progressive, albeit one who was later connected to the isolationist America First Committee) to Jon Tester. 

Tranel criticized Zinke and his fellow congressional Republicans for votes to limit abortion, SNAP benefits, health care services at the Department of Veterans Affairs and other issues. 

“As we stand in this fork in the road, we stand for fairness, and we are going to give the people of Montana a choice as we decide which fork we’re going to take and how we march on together,” she said. “We stand for freedom. Vote after vote after vote, Ryan Zinke and his colleagues voted to have the most sacred, the most private moments of our life invaded by the government.”

Much of Tranel’s campaign in 2022 focused on Zinke’s record as Donald Trump’s first Interior secretary, a position he vacated under the ignominious weight of a pile of ethics probes. Her speech Wednesday contained essentially no mention of Zinke’s tenure in the Trump cabinet. 

This time around, she said she’s focused on telling a positive story about herself and making it clear to Montanans what a vote for Tranel will mean for them. She also noted that she’ll enter this race with much greater name recognition than she did when she declared two years ago. 

Political science orthodoxy suggests that 2024 could be a difficult year for Democrats given Joe Biden’s general unpopularity. But Tranel said that she thinks having high-profile races for the presidency and U.S. Senate at the top of the ticket will bring out voters — something Democrats struggled with in 2022, when turnout in blue-leaning areas of Montana was anemic. 

There have been a handful of rematches in Montana’s political history, most recently in the 1980s, when Democrat Buck O’Brien made two consecutive failed runs against Republican congressman Ron Marlenee. (Democrat Kathleen Williams made successive failed runs for Congress in 2018 and 2020, but against two different Republicans). Generally speaking, Montana do-overs haven’t been successful, and, more often than not, the repeat candidate fared worse the second time around. 

And a Tranel-Zinke rematch isn’t a foregone conclusion. Tranel could lose a primary to an as-yet unnamed Democrat, as could Zinke on his side of the aisle. In the 2022 cycle, Zinke defeated GOP hardliner and fellow Flathead County denizen Al Olszewski by only two points in the primary. 

Even if both emerge from their respective primaries, there’s also the possibility of a confounding third-party confounding variable. In 2022, that variable was John Lamb, a Libertarian farmer and father of 12 who grew up in an Amish-Mennonite community in Indiana before eventually settling near Norris. Despite his self-professed “radical” anti-abortion views, Lamb and Tranel seemed to genuinely get along and toured the district together in a series of debates and forums that focused on Zinke’s record. Lamb ultimately picked up about 4% of the vote, enough to deny Zinke a majority victory. Tranel said she’s talked to Lamb a few times since but has no idea if he plans to run again.

“Zinke had high name recognition. But he didn’t get 50% of the vote. He barely got out of his primary,” Tranel told Capitolized. “He is not popular. So what I need to do is give people an alternative that serves them.” 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Seen on the Trail

Montana U.S. House of Representatives candidate Monica Tranel speaks at a campaign launch event in Kalispell on Wednesday, July 12, 2023. Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit / Montana Free Press

Other Races

The existence of Montana’s western congressional district implies, of course, the existence of its eastern district. Created along with its occidental neighbor during the 2020 redistricting cycle, the eastern district — a relative term, as it stretches from Helena all the way to the Dakota border — is the current domain of GOP congressman Matt Rosendale. 

But Rosendale is rumored to be making a bid for the U.S. Senate as a hardline alternative to Tim Sheehy, the pick of the national GOP establishment in the party’s effort to unseat three-term incumbent Jon Tester, Montana’s only statewide-elected Democrat. While Rosendale’s possible absence isn’t likely to make the heavily Republican eastern district winnable for Democrats, it could at least make for an interesting race.

Helena’s Kevin Hamm, who ran for PSC in 2022 but lost in the primary, is the only Democrat to have so far launched a campaign for the seat. He’s yet to report fundraising numbers to the FEC. If Rosendale does run for Senate, current PSC Commissioner Randy Pinocci has said he may run for Congress in Rosendale’s place, though there’s no shortage of Republicans with at least some name recognition in this part of the state. 

Rosendale hasn’t formally announced his intentions, but he didn’t miss an opportunity to blast Sheehy as a member of the “McConnell-Biden Establishment” when the latter declared his candidacy for Senate. 

At the state level, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte is also vying for re-election. First-term state Rep. Tanner Smith, R-Lakeside, has already announced a primary challenge from Gianforte’s right flank. Ryan Busse, a former gun industry executive who underwent a dramatic conversion and wrote a book criticizing American gun culture and the lobbying ecosystem that surrounds it, has said he’s considering a run for governor as a Democrat. 

And while he said he hasn’t announced a decision whether to run, Busse appeared in full campaign mode earlier this week at a rally with Democratic lawmakers and activists urging Gianforte to continue the state’s participation in a pandemic-era federal meal assistance program. 

“I’m a proud Democrat and proud to stand here with these people who — really, it’s a pretty low bar — but we’re just willing to stand up for real Montanans,” he said at the rally. 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

On Background

The Zinke, Tranel (and Lamb) show: Montana Free Press spent time on the campaign trail with both Monica Tranel and Ryan Zinke (and John Lamb) in 2022. For more on the backgrounds of the candidates, see this resulting story. 

Dem Busse considering challenge to Gianforte: Capitolized was the first to report that Ryan Busse is contemplating a Democratic bid for the governorship. 

Nonprofits Warn of Rise in Food Insecurity After State Declines Millions in Federal Pandemic EBT Dollars:  For more on the state’s decision to stop accepting federal Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer funds, see this story on the reaction from the nonprofit sector in the Flathead Beacon.