Ryan Zinke’s return to Washington is far from certain

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MISSOULA, Mont. — Ryan Zinke is encountering some resistance here as he attempts to return indoors.

The Republican former Secretary of the Interior, who served in Congress from 2015 to 2017, has long been a favorite for the state’s newly drawn 1st District. However, analysts and polls suggest Democrat Monica Tranel may be catching up.

“We gave Ryan Zinke a chance and he embarrassed us; we’re not letting him do that again,” she said.

Three election forecasting organizations have downgraded Zinke’s odds in recent weeks, shifting their predictions slightly towards Tranel’s. And a poll this month commissioned by a super-political anti-Zinke action committee put the two on a virtual par.

“I think the race is going to be very competitive, and I think Tranel can win the race,” said Kal Munis, a Utah Valley University politics professor who has been following the race, in an interview.

Montana Democrat Monica Tranel during an event in Missoula. | Tom Bauer/The Missoulian/Associated Press

Sabato’s crystal ballUniversity of Virginia political guru Larry Sabato’s project moved the race to Leans Republican, one step away from a toss-up.

The Analysts compared the Montana race to Alaska’s special election this year, in which Democrat Mary Peltola defeated former Republican governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

That crystal ball sees Tranel, like Peltola, “as a talented democratic woman [who] runs against a former elected official turned national figure [Zinke] and lost some of its shine as a result.”

The organization also pointed out that John Lamb, the libertarian candidate in Zinke’s race, could strip him of conservative votes.

Nathan Gonzalez, analyst at Capitol Hill newspaper appealShe moved the race to Lean Republican and away from Likely Republican, as was the case The Cook Political Report.

The Victoria Research poll found Zinke at 41 per cent and Tranel at 40 per cent, with a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points. The study of more than 800 likely voters was commissioned by Big Sky Voters, who spent nearly $700,000 on ads and other efforts to defeat Zinke.

“Very Competitive District”

Zinke previously represented Montana in the House of Representatives when it had only one vacant seat. He left the chamber to head President Donald Trump’s Department of the Interior.

The former Navy SEAL and former state legislature pursued an aggressive pro-fossil fuel agenda, though he often spoke about the need to protect sensitive lands and waters.

He has been the subject of numerous investigations into his adherence to ethics standards and use of government resources, including two investigations by the inspector general released earlier this year that found he was not honest with investigators.

Zinke resigned in 2019 amid the requests. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing (E&E dailySept. 30).

Munis said the 1st Circuit’s vote in the 2020 election — which favored Trump by 7 points — obscures important facts, such as Republicans benefiting in 2020 from Trump increasing turnout, a factor that has been factored into this year will not come into play.

“It’s a very competitive area. And it’s one of those counties where, unless you know the weird dynamics of Montana’s elections, it would seem comfortably Republican,” Munis said.

Lamb, the libertarian, could pose a threat to Zinke.

“Zinke is not popular with the conservative wing of the party. I think there are some real questions about how many votes Lamb gets,” continued Munis.

Sen. Jon Tester (D) would have won the 1st District by about 10 points in his 2018 re-election, and Gov. Steve Bullock (D) would have won it by about 1 point in the 2020 Senate election, which he lost to Sen. Steve Daines (R) Munis said.

On the other hand, many dynamics this year are in favor of Republicans, such as President Joe Biden’s low approval rating, inflation and high gas prices.

“I think she has a good shot. It’s going to be close,” Munis said of Tranel.

When asked about the ratings change, Tranel, an energy advocate, said she was optimistic about her chances, noting the numerous debates and forums that Zinke invited but did not attend.

“I’ve traveled over 43,000 miles in my minivan in this gathering with constituents from across the district to hear and learn from Montanans on the issues important to them. Montanans want a leader who will put them first,” she said in a statement.

Zinke did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Fingers crossed’

In Missoula, the largest city in the 1st Circuit, Dan Bertagnoli, 40, an accountant, said this week he’s not yet convinced of Zinke. Bertagnoli supported Trump in the 2020 election but believes Zinke – whose signs dot many of the ranches and farms outside of Missoula – may be too dovish.

“I’ve seen all the signs of Zinke,” he said. “But I think he’s leaning to the left, even though he claims to be on the right.”

He said he was not familiar with either Tranel or Lamb. But Zinke’s scandals from his time in the Trump administration didn’t bother Bertagnoli.

“Everything about the Trump administration, there’s so much stuff that’s tarnished, so much stuff that’s been said, who can know what the truth is?” he said.

Jane Bucks, 77, a retired educator, recently cast her early vote for Tranel. Missoula, home of the University of Montana, is one of the state’s left-leaning enclaves.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of interest in her, but we live in Missoula, so maybe that’s not the district perspective.”

Bucks said she fears the state is too polarized and voters will simply vote for their preferred party.

“People may know his record in DC with all the investigations, but they’re going to vote for any Republican,” she said.

Lee Brown, 66, a retired high school math teacher who supports Tranel, said he believes the race has swung towards the tine.

“I think he’ll probably win within 10 points,” Brown said of Zinke. “We get close all the time, but in the end people look at the R or D after the name and that’s how they vote, they mostly agree.”

He said the campaigns have spent a lot of money “but I’m afraid the Democrats have peaked too soon.”

Lesley Clark reported from Missoula. Timothy Cama reported from Washington.

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