How will voters define Montana’s new Western congressional district?

For the first time in decades, Montanans are considering a ballot with two new federal congressional districts — a division based on population gains documented by the 2020 census. Neither district comes with a pat political history or clear electoral forecast. But in the inaugural June 7 primary for Montana’s House District 1, the Western District, at least one element isn’t in short supply: political diversity. 

The nine candidates in District 1 — a jagged ‘C’ encompassing Glacier County, Kalispell, Missoula, the Bitterroot Valley, Butte and Gallatin County — are as ideologically varied as the population they seek to represent. 

On the conservative side of the field, the Republican candidates are former U.S. Rep. and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, former state Sen. Al Olszewski, Kalispell pastor Mary Todd, high school government teacher Matt Jette, and Whitefish homebuilder Mitch Heuer. Bozeman activist John Lamb is running as a Libertarian.

The candidates on the liberal side of the spectrum are Democrats Cora Neumann, a public health advocate from Bozeman; Missoula attorney Monica Tranel; and former state Rep. Tom Winter.

Unlike states in which voters register with a specific political party and only pick between candidates on that party’s ballot, Montana has open primaries. Any voter can cast a ballot in any one party’s primary. 

Historically, that open primary system has “allowed a lot of different types of candidates and viewpoints to be in these races,” said Jessi Bennion, a political science professor at Montana State University. This year, she said, the race is “crowded on both sides.”

For many candidates on the ballot, the new Western district is a blank canvas on which they can project their preferred political characterization. Without public polling on the district, the candidates point to internal research, campaign advisers and anecdotal interactions with voters to support their analysis. But even the most confident candidates concede that the political contours of the Western district won’t begin to emerge until the results roll in on June 7. 

THE CONSERVATIVE QUESTION

To understand the dynamics of the Western district, Bennion suggests taking some national ratings into account. As of May 19, the Cook Political Report listed the state’s House District 1 as “Likely Republican,” the most secure ranking for conservatives, with a seven-point margin.

But while 2020 election outcomes painted Montana solidly red, Bennion said the Western district “can be competitive for Democrats” given Montana’s long history of electing both Republicans and Democrats to state and federal offices.

“Maybe that Cook Political ranking doesn’t quite capture everything, but something is going on there,” Bennion said. “I would probably put Lean Republican,” a slightly more moderate rating, she said.

Republican candidate Ryan Zinke. Credit: Courtesy of Zinke campaign

Bennion and several candidates have tagged Zinke as the race’s apparent frontrunner, citing his high name recognition and significant fundraising lead. As of the most recent financial filings from April, Zinke reported more than $1.2 million on hand and roughly the same amount spent on the race so far. 

Zinke has also clinched the support of former President Donald Trump, Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Gov. Greg Gianforte. In a 10-minute public call-in held in mid-May, Trump touted Zinke’s accomplishments during his time at the Department of the Interior — from which Zinke resigned under a slew of ethics investigations after roughly two years — and said the candidate had his “complete and total endorsement.” 

But if other candidates in the field are any indication, not all conservatives are rallying behind Zinke. The former congressman drew four Republican challengers who have spent much of their time on the campaign trail criticizing the presumptive frontrunner. Three of those contenders — Todd, Heuer and Olszewski — are from the Flathead Valley that Zinke also calls home and are attempting to flank him from the right on several issues, including election security, abortion and immigration.

Olszewski, who has previously run unsuccessfully for Congress and the governorship, has emerged as Zinke’s most vocal Republican critic. In advertisements, debate appearances and interviews, Olszewski has framed Zinke as insufficiently conservative, a characterization the former congressman has dismissed.

“What I’m doing is I’m holding him accountable to his voting record,” Olszewski said in a May interview with Montana Free Press. “He will tell you that he’s very conservative. But when you look at his voting record in Congress, he’s a big-government Republican, I think is the best way to put it.”

Republican candidate Al “Doc” Olszewski in Kalispell on May 10, 2022. Credit: Mara Silvers / Montana Free Press

Having represented constituents in the Kalispell region during his roughly five years in the state Legislature, Olszewski said he’s hopeful that his political brand — tough on immigration, critical of federal spending, bullish on election regulations and staunchly anti-abortion — will resonate with conservative voters throughout the Western district.

“We have different candidates that espouse different agendas, or what makes them look to be the best candidate to be our next congressman,” Olszewski said. “And we’re going to find out [on June 7] if what I’m espousing or what I’m promoting is not what people want.”

Jette, a Republican candidate from Missoula, is positioning himself as a more moderate option for voters who don’t identify with the “red meat” platforms he says have been touted by Zinke, Olszewski, Todd and Heuer. He is also hoping to appeal to voters disillusioned with Zinke’s scandal-tinged resignation from the Trump administration. An internal investigation from the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General released in February found that Zinke had misused his official position and “did not comply with ethical obligations and duty of candor,” but “did not substantiate the allegation that Secretary Zinke violated Federal conflict of interest laws.”  

“We have different candidates that espouse different agendas, or what makes them look to be the best candidate to be our next congressman. And we’re going to find out if what I’m espousing or what I’m promoting is not what people want.”

U.S. House candidate Al Olszewski

“Everyone’s already made up their opinion on Zinke, positive and negative,” Jette said in a May interview. “I’m [betting] that the negatives are much higher than the positives.”

Zinke’s campaign staff declined to make him available for an interview with MTFP or allow a reporter access to campaign events in April and early May. He also did not attend several debates and forums in April and May where candidates were invited to speak. But in campaign materials and other interviews, Zinke’s campaign has defended his record in the Trump administration and, at times, expressed displeasure with the attacks against him.

“My concern, if I have one, is the Republican Party. We have to lead and you have to lead with integrity,” Zinke said in a May interview with KGVO’s Montana Talks program, addressing criticisms from members of his own party. “We can have discussions on policy, but the tone is, I think, a little over the line.”

A HOME FOR DEMOCRATS?

For the three Democratic candidates in the race, Zinke isn’t the only factor that makes a victory in the Western district seem like an uphill climb. In 2020, Democrats up and down the ballot were unequivocally rejected by voters in favor of Republican contenders. The race for Montana’s then sole congressional seat, among others, was not close. Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale beat Democrat Kathleen Williams by nearly 13 points.

“We can have discussions on policy, but the tone is, I think, a little over the line.”

U.S. House candidate Ryan Zinke

While that election cycle still makes some Montana progressives wince, the Neumann, Tranel and Winter campaigns are trying to convince supporters that Montana’s politics won’t be defined by the results of one election.

“I think that people are yearning to connect with our communities again” after years of a “polarizing” political climate, Tranel said in a recent interview. “People want to shovel your neighbor’s walk even if they don’t vote the same way. That’s the Montana I grew up in and love and know. And I think that’s very much alive and well.”

In their own ways, the Democratic candidates are chasing the hope of a purple electorate in which voters, particularly those who lean conservative, are less beholden to party lines. 

Democratic candidate Monica Tranel in Butte on May 3, 2022. Credit: Mara Silvers / Montana Free Press

Tranel, an energy and environmental attorney who grew up in eastern and central Montana, avoids labeling herself a progressive or dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, sometimes quipping on the campaign trail that she represents “the party of Montana.” Tranel previously campaigned for the Public Service Commission on both Republican and Democratic tickets — first in 2004 and later in 2020. She served a stint as a legislative aide to Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns in the early 2000s and was endorsed last year by former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer. In a recent debate in Missoula, Tranel said it’s essential that Montana Democrats campaign on issues that engage progressive, moderate and conservative voters alike. 

“There is no path to victory on a Democrat-only platform. We’ve got to have the persuadable voters, we have to energize our base,” she said during the event. “It’s both.”

“I think really primary issues of quality of life and affordability is what it comes back to again and again. And that’s what I am going to stay focused on.”

U.S. House candidate Cora Neumann

The other two Democratic candidates in the race are also using their backgrounds to try to appeal to a wide array of voters. Neumann, who grew up in Bozeman and spent most of her career advocating for public health and rural economic development across the U.S. and abroad, returned to Bozeman with her family in 2019. Neumann’s campaign rhetoric points to affordable housing and health care as kitchen table issues that can build broad constituencies across the Western district. 

“Every town I go to, no matter how small it is, is experiencing a housing crisis or real serious pressure around housing,” Neumann said in a May interview. “It’s not just Bozeman and Missoula and Kalispell, it is all of our towns across the state … It’s a vicious cycle that is really deteriorating the fabric of our communities.”

Democratic candidate Cora Neumann in Kalispell on May 10, 2022. Credit: Mara Silvers / Montana Free Press

Despite the hot-button issues that have gripped and divided national politics in recent years, Neumann said she believes her focus on economic issues is a unifying strategy. 

“I think really primary issues of quality of life and affordability is what it comes back to again and again,” she said. “And that’s what I am going to stay focused on.”

Winter, a Polson resident who describes himself as a progressive populist, is also looking to engage voters about issues that are relevant to their daily lives. 

In 2018 Winter defeated a Republican incumbent to represent a legislative district northwest of Missoula. He said his success was the result of prioritizing the interests of his constituents rather than parroting nationalized talking points from the major political parties. When he knocks on the door of someone who supported Trump, Winter said, that voter may also believe that “if they get breast cancer, that they should not have to go through a medical bankruptcy and lose their house.” 

“There is no path to victory on a Democrat-only platform. We’ve got to have the persuadable voters, we have to energize our base. It’s both.”

U.S. House candidate Monica Tranel

“People are rightfully disenchanted with the system as it is, and rightfully disenchanted with the parties that have brought the system into being,” Winter said in a May interview. As a self-described progressive candidate in Montana, Winter said his strategy is to “ask and speak about fundamental values and questions that the government can provide and protect you from.”

Bennion said the unification strategy pushed by Democrats isn’t surprising after the party’s tough year in 2020.

“Montana Democrats have kind of a tricky situation. They know that the electorate in Montana is pretty conservative. They have seen the trends. And so they’re trying to find the issues that they can speak to and probably sticking away from broad cultural issues,” she said. 

COUNTDOWN TO PRIMARY DAY

Election officials began mailing ballots last week. With June 7 looming, Western district candidates are in full-fledged campaign mode — advertisements and videos are popping up on television and social media platforms, endorsements are stacking up, and public forums are continuing. 

“People are rightfully disenchanted with the system as it is, and rightfully disenchanted with the parties that have brought the system into being.”

U.S. House candidate Tom Winter

As candidates expend resources trying to connect with voters, Bennion said the primary is largely an opportunity for the electorate to define the political parameters of an untested district. Nearly all the major cities represented by the Western House seat have seen population growth in recent years, with Kalispell leading the pack. 

“That’s a big deal when Kalispell is growing. And I want to know what kind of voter that is. Who is moving there?” Bennion said. “And so I’m interested in what that’s going to do to our politics.”

According to current voter rolls, that population growth seems likely to factor into upcoming turnout. Flathead County added 3,681 residents between July 2020 and July 2021. Assuming that trend has held steady in the past year, the growth nearly matches an increase in voter registration — as of May 19, there were 7,428 more registered voters in Flathead County than on primary day 2020.

The same holds true for Gallatin County, which gained 3,211 residents in the calendar year between 2020 and 2021. As of this week, the county has 7,599 more registered voters than there were in June two years ago.

But whether those voters show up for a primary election in an midterm year — let alone for a newly created district — is wholly unknown, as is who voters might decide to support. For those answers, June 7 remains tantalizingly far away. 

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