Zinke still pegged as winner, but analysts see ‘vulnerabilities’

Tranel campaign optimistic despite national orgs’ projections

By: - August 26, 2022 6:19 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

Just a couple of days after another federal probe made another dent in the record of former U.S. Navy Seal Ryan Zinke, the national prognosticators still had him pegged as the easy victor in Montana’s U.S. House of Representatives race.

Political analysts say scandals, which have clouded Zinke’s public persona even before Outside Magazine published a photo that showed he rigged a fly rod backwards, might not stick in this day and age.

So one more report concluding Zinke lied might not register with voters.

The GOP’s man has won before, of course.

Former U.S. Congressman Ryan Zinke of Montana and Republican candidate for Montana’s new western congressional district. (Gage Skidmore).

Zinke trounced a Democrat in 2014 with 55.4 percent of the vote, and then again in 2016, with a push on the ballot from then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and an even greater win, 56.2 percent.

This week, federal investigators said he knowingly misled them as former Secretary of the Interior about his interactions with corporate casino lobbyists pushing him to disapprove a rival project.

His opponent in this year’s election, Monica Tranel, is the natural underdog. The Missoula lawyer has never held national office, she’s campaigning as a Democrat in a state that runs red, and she’s got an uphill slog.

Friday, the forecast from Sabato’s Crystal Ball said GOP victory is “likely” in Montana’s western district. FiveThirtyEight marks Zinke the winner 98 times out of 100.

Asked about the prediction at a recent campaign event, Tranel said the analysts need to take a closer look at the district. She also points to the other side of the coin projecting she’ll likely lose.

“We win two times out of 100,” Tranel said.

Twice as many times as she needs.

***

This year, new and different currents are pushing at the race, and political analysts say a hint of unpredictability is tracing through the waters.

The national landscape is politically shifty, with inflation in a peppy climb. Fallout is still unfolding from the Jan. 6 hearings and Roe v. Wade reversal. And in Montana, the western district itself is new.

So the bright red predictions aren’t necessarily well grounded, said Jeremy Johnson, political scientist with Carroll College in Helena.

“There’s just very little polling in the western district where he’s running so far,” Johnson said. “So there’s very little for them (national forecasters) to go on right now.”

To push out the presumed favorite, Johnson said Democrats will have to fight against national headwinds and break through tribalization and political polarization, an arduous but not impossible task.

“I think there’s at least potential vulnerabilities,” Johnson said. “Whether they actually manifest themselves in the election? Obviously, the national prognosticators don’t think it’s that likely.”

Inside Elections also counts the new district as likely Republican.

If the Democrats are to win, they’ll need to make sure the electorate is aware of the questionable conduct associated with Zinke and make the case that it’s discrediting, Johnson said.

The recent report is the second this year from the Inspector General’s Office of the Department of the Interior that said the former Secretary knowingly provided investigators inaccurate and incomplete information. A February report found Zinke wasn’t truthful about his involvement in a Whitefish development.

Zinke’s campaign has called the findings politically motivated, a “smear.”

These days, though, voters have shorter attention spans, and impropriety that might have sunk a political candidate just a couple of years ago might flutter off the radar.

For Dems to flip the script?

“Can you focus on voters who are willing to be persuaded?” Johnson said.

***

Montanans sometimes pride themselves on not voting straight tickets.

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, noted just six U.S. Senators out of 100 represent states that their party did not support for president.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, a Democrat, is one.

“So Montana actually does have a little bit of that tradition of crossing over a bit,” Kondik said. “But it’s an exception at this point.”

Tester has won in nail biters.

However, in 2018 in counties that now make up the western district, he did so by 10 points against Republican Matt Rosendale. In those counties, Tester earned 53.8 percent of the vote to Rosendale’s 43.6 percent. A Libertarian took 2.6 percent.

In the 2020 race for the U.S. Senate, Democrat Steve Bullock lost to incumbent Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, by a margin of 10 points in Montana.

In the western district, that margin shrunk to 1.44 points without a third-party candidate on the ballot.

In other words, had a Libertarian earned just 1.5 percent of the vote going to Daines — one point less than the 2.6 percent the third-party candidate took in 2016 — Bullock would have won that district.

Monica Tranel is the Democrat underdog in the race for the U.S. House in Montana’s new western district. (Courtesy Monica Tranel for Montana)

At a recent campaign event, Tranel pointed out that Zinke came out of the primary with nearly 60 percent of Republican voters selecting another candidate, and she came out of it with 65 percent of the vote from her party — and more total votes than any other candidate.

Kondik agreed Zinke had problems in the primary: “He’s certainly the bigger named candidate, but he only barely won.”

On the other hand, he’s a Republican. That counts in Montana, it counts in an increasingly nationalized political scene, and it counts against the Democrat.

“You’re working against that polarization, and people with strongly partisan identities who often don’t want to hear negative things about their own candidate and who will often dismiss their relevance,” Johnson said.

***

In the Zinke campaign’s response this week to the report from the Inspector General’s Office, white collar criminal defense lawyer Danny Onorato touted his client’s “integrity” and record of service.

Zinke has described previous investigations into ethical misconduct as “harassment.” His lawyer also points to his resume.

Zinke counts 23 years of military service. He served as a state senator for two terms, as a congressman elected in 2014 and 2016, and as U.S. Secretary of the Interior from March 2017 to January 2019.

Christina Barsky, political analyst with the University of Montana, said the military service on Zinke’s resume resonates with Montanans because they are civically engaged and count a higher rate of public service compared to people in many other states.

Also a factor, and in any race, is the short attention span of the American public. It’s an age where everyone is watching at all times, and Barsky said anyone in the public eye is vulnerable, although not always for long.

“It’s impossible in this day and age, ultimately, for politicians to come out unscathed, even the people that are acting in good faith and are fulfilling their ethical obligations,” said Barsky, faculty with the Department of Public Administration and Policy at UM.

On the other hand, Montanans don’t like to be embarrassed.

And Zinke’s actions have raised questions about his Montana identity, Barsky said. She pointed to the times he wore a cowboy hat the wrong way and rigged a fly rod backwards, or the persistent question of his residency.

Zinke’s wife lists a property in California as her primary residence, according to Politico, and Zinke, who claims Whitefish as home, has listed the Santa Barbara address in a consultant agreement filed with the SEC.

***

Barsky too points to Tester as an example of politics in the Treasure State.

For a long time, she said Montana has seen itself as a state where a person who was a high school band teacher can go to Congress, and in 2006, Tester, a farmer and music teacher, won his first U.S. Senate race against incumbent and Republican Sen. Conrad Burns.

A third-party candidate was on the ballot, but Tester didn’t even get 50 percent of the vote.

Now, Barsky said money in politics is creating another level of elites, and the story Montanans have been telling themselves might be skirting closer to mythology.

“It seems like we’re moving more into the nationalized politics that we’re seeing in other states,” Barsky said. “Montana had been a long-time holdout, and I’m not sure it’s true anymore.”

Word of the new report that said Zinke wasn’t truthful might get swept aside with other national news about student loan forgiveness and, more locally, fires, Barsky said. And the election isn’t until November.

Political analyst Lee Banville, also a UM faculty member, said the IG’s report won’t change the way most people vote, but he said it may affect one important element in a campaign — enthusiasm for the candidate.

“They may be inclined to vote his way, but are they fired up enough to go out and cast a ballot?” Banville said.

He doesn’t see signs of a lot of motivation: “If there’s one weak spot to Ryan Zinke, there seems to be some enthusiasm problems.”

He said the close primary doesn’t indicate Zinke is in danger of losing, but it is evidence that Republicans aren’t excited to rally around him as a candidate.

“The race is tilted toward him pretty strongly, but there are weaknesses that are kind of persistent,” Banville said. “He’s kind of coasting right now, and that could be dangerous.”

***

Screenshot of the projection from FiveThirtyEight of the outcome in the U.S. House race in western Montana.

The Tranel campaign hasn’t earned high marks from the organizations crunching numbers at the national level, and Republicans have celebrated the predictions Zinke eats his opponent’s lunch.

“Monica Tranel has even fewer original ideas than chances of winning in November,” posted the Montana Republican Party on Facebook earlier this summer in reaction to FiveThirtyEight. “Montanans are fired up to elect Ryan Zinke!”

Zinke has raised more money, nearly $3.8 million, according to the most recent information filed with the Federal Election Commission. Tranel has raised $1.3 million, but this month, she was on the third set of tires on her minivan in a state where facetime matters.

This month, Silas Teasdale started his first day of work as a field organizer in Missoula for the Tranel campaign. It was First Friday, when downtown art galleries stay open a little later and crowds are out and about, and after his shift, Teasdale went to a taco truck.

He struck up a conversation with three other diners at the next table, he said, three men who were clearly friends despite differing political views.

One of them told Teasdale he had voted for Trump, but he wasn’t sure he liked Zinke, and he wanted to hear about Tranel.

Certainly, a voter who crosses party lines on a ballot isn’t a surprise in the Treasure State. Nonetheless, with the campaign in full swing and a Trump voter curious about his underdog candidate, Teasdale took note.

“That’s a positive shot to the system,” Teasdale said.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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