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House election reveals western district’s true hue

by Daily Inter Lake
| November 13, 2022 12:00 AM

While the much-ballyhooed midterm Republican “red wave” proved to be nothing more than a ripple on the national stage, the Montana election tally left the Big Sky blues drenched and gasping for air.

Simply put, Montana Democrats suffered an epic wipeout in statehouse races.

For the first time since the state’s legislative makeup was established in 1975, there will be a so-called supermajority in Helena when the 2023 session is gaveled to order. Republicans will hold more than 100 seats, exceeding the two-third supermajority threshold. The last time the GOP wielded such legislative power was in 1997 when the party occupied 99 seats.

Unsurprisingly, Northwest Montana was a GOP stronghold for legislative hopefuls. Republicans campaigning in this corner of the state claimed every open seat — aside from Whitefish’s House District 5 — and it wasn’t particularly close. Up and down the ballot, from Polson to Libby to Kalispell, GOP candidates scored convincing wins.

Now left licking their wounds, individual precinct tallies show that the Democrats’ anemic messaging whiffed with rural voters — most of Montana. If the party can’t meaningfully connect with independents outside of the state’s urban centers, the legislative balance will continue to tip overwhelmingly in the GOP’s favor.

Interestingly, though, the race for Montana’s western district U.S. House seat was exceptionally competitive.

Republican Ryan Zinke managed to earn a return trip to Congress, but only after narrowly holding off Democrat Monica Tranel and Libertarian John Lamb. With all precincts reporting, Zinke took just 50% of the vote total, with Tranel taking 46%. A little more than 8,000 votes separated the two candidates.

And while Zinke was expected to win in a district former President Trump easily carried in 2020, the close tally showed that Montana’s Districting and Apportionment Commission got it right when dividing the state to accommodate Montana’s second U.S. House seat.

Based on Tuesday’s results, the western district is compact and contiguous — and certainly competitive. Its makeup harkens back to days not too long ago when Montana was considered more politically purple than deep red.

Zinke should take note of this violet hue as he packs his bags for the Beltway. Montana already has one congressman who has firmly planted his flag on the political outskirts — we don’t need another. What’s more, Zinke’s constituency isn’t looking for that type of representation.

Montana’s diverse western congressional district would be best served if Zinke aims for the right-of-center and is willing to listen to the broad voice of the region — from the red rural outposts to the urban centers of Missoula, Bozeman and Butte that favored his opponent.

Based on post-election comments, he already seems to be on that track.

“You also represent the people that didn’t vote for you, and the people that will never vote for you,” Zinke told KRTV. “Part of a representative is to listen and navigate issues that are in the best interest of Montana.”

Zinke has a second chance to be the moderate Teddy Roosevelt Republican he touts himself to be. All of Western Montana will be watching his return to Capitol Hill — let’s hope he can deliver on the issues that affect the most of us, the most.

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