GOP tight, Tranel on top in western U.S. House race | 406 Politics

BOZEMAN — In a surprisingly close Republican primary for Montana’s new western congressional district, former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke held a narrow 2 point lead over former state Sen. Al Olszewski as of 11 p.m. in a five-way race. 

In the Democratic primary, both of Monica Tranel’s opponents conceded the race late Tuesday night.

Montana added enough population in the 2020 U.S. Census to regain its second seat in the U.S. House after losing it in the 1990s. The primary winners will go on to compete in the November general election.

Zinke, a retired Navy SEAL from Whitefish and considered the likely frontrunner, faced four opponents in the GOP primary, including Olszewski. Also in the race were Mary Todd, a church leader and small business owner from Kalispell; Mitch Heuer, a home builder from Whitefish; and Matt Jette, a school teacher from Missoula.

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Late Tuesday evening Zinke held a roughly 1,000-vote lead for 41% to Olszewski’s 39%. Todd had nearly 11%, Jette about 6% and Heuer about 2%. 

“We’re still feeling confident,” Zinke campaign manager Heather Swift said. “Montanans know bull when they see it. We’re looking forward to the Election Day vote totals. Our volunteers worked hard, made tens of thousands phone calls and knocked thousands of doors to get out the vote.”

The Secretary of State’s website was reporting partial results that included turnout at about 25% statewide, with no results from several counties in the district late Tuesday evening.

While Zinke led in several of the counties that reported results Tuesday night, he trailed Olszewski significantly in Flathead County, one of the most populous in the district. Both claim the district as their home, and Olszewski had 49% of the vote there late Tuesday to Zinke’s 28%.

Montana U.S. House candidate and former Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, left, waves to passing motorists outside the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell on Tuesday.

Zinke’s high public profile, fundraising and association with former President Donald Trump made him the early favorite in the Republican primary. Along with Trump’s endorsement he received high-profile endorsements from Montana Republicans Gov. Greg Gianforte and Sen. Steve Daines. Zinke dominated the money race for both Republicans and Democrats, raising nearly $3 million over the campaign so far.

But several of Zinke’s opponents lodged sustained attacks, portraying him as too moderate or questioning the amount of time he spends outside Montana — his wife owns a home and property in California.

Al Olszewski

Montana U.S. House candidate and former state Sen. Al Olszewski, right, talks with campaign aide Drew Zinecker during an event hosted by Butte-Silver Bow County Republicans at the Copper King Hotel and Convention Center on May 13, in Butte. Olszewski has criticized his primary opponent, former Trump cabinet member Ryan Zinke, as being too liberal for a newly created House district in western Montana.

Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon from Kalispell, has run twice statewide, losing in GOP primaries for governor and U.S. Senate. He has sought to align himself with the conservative wing of the Republican Party, saying he would double down on votes of Rep. Matt Rosendale, who cruised to victory in the the eastern district.

Olszewski has been an outspoken Zinke critic, attacking the former congressman on guns, immigration, abortion and ethics issues as well as pushing the narrative that he resides in California. 

Opponents also focused on Zinke’s departure from the Trump administration, resigning after two years amid multiple ethics investigations. An inspector general’s report released earlier this year found Zinke misused his authority to help with a commercial project in Whitefish, and then misrepresented his role to investigators.

Zinke has characterized those investigations as attempts by the so-called “deep state” to attack him politically.

Zinke has touted his experience in energy and public lands, identified housing and immigration as major issues. He cites a need to mend division in the country as motivation for running.

In Tuesday night’s tightly contested primary race for the newly drawn western U.S. House district, Tranel was leading with 66% of the vote to 27% for Cora Neumann. Tom Winter had 8%. Those tallies Tranel to claim victory and her opponents to concede and throw their support behind Tranel.

Monica Tranel

Monica Tranel talks with a supporter during an election watch event on Tuesday evening at the Union Club Bar & Grill in Missoula.

“This will be a big, big challenge. We are up against corporate money, we are up against corruption,” Tranel told supporters at the Union Club in Missoula. ” … We are going to draw form the strength of Montanans for the last 150 years who have stood up to corporate greed and served the people of Montana and I will be that voice now.”

In a brief address to supporters in Bozeman, Neumann said she was now backing Tranel.

“I want to congratulate Monica Tranel on winning this election and all of the candidates for getting in and standing up for a future we can believe in,” Neumann said. “Tonight I’m asking everyone to join me in supporting Monica Tranel to fight for what makes Montana so special.”

Winter’s campaign spokesperson said congratulations to Tranel and that “we encourage every Montanan to vote for her in the general election.”

Cora Neumann, a Democrat,

Cora Neumann, a Democrat, talks with reporters on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022 after filing to run for U.S. Congress in the Montana State Capitol.

The Democratic primary was the most competitive in terms of the money race, with Neumann pulling in about $1.3 million over the campaign. But Tranel out-raised her in the final reporting period before the election with $207,000 to about $162,000 for Neumann. Winter trailed in campaign contributions significantly. 

Tranel led Neumann with 59% of the vote to Neumann’s 33% in Gallatin County, Neumann’s hometown turf and a key county to win, with that county partially reporting from all 32 precincts. She also dominated in Missoula, her home and one of the biggest counties in the district.

On the Democratic side, the candidates also sparred over who held the rights to the most authentic Montanan in the race, with a super PAC running ads in support of Tranel criticizing Neumann for moving back to Montana in 2019 after spending years out of state. Tranel grew up in eastern Montana and has spent nearly all of her career in the state. Neumann has said her family was forced to move from Bozeman when she was young for financial reasons and she returned as soon as was feasible. 

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