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National Dems view Zinke's House seat as vulnerable

by KATE HESTON
Daily Inter Lake | April 16, 2023 12:00 AM

Democrats nationally are targeting Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke’s seat in Congress heading into 2024. But is it possible to flip Montana’s newest congressional district?

According to Sheila Hogan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party: Yes, it is.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Washington, D.C.-based campaign arm of House Democrats, earlier this month identified Republican-held districts they see as vulnerable. Among the 31 districts listed as targets for upcoming Democratic efforts, Montana has one, the 1st Congressional District, currently held by Zinke.

“We’re excited that the DCCC sees what we see,” Hogan said. “This is definitely winnable.”

As part of their criteria for determining vulnerability, national Democrats identified districts across the country where President Joe Biden lost by slimmer margins in 2020, where local Republican candidates narrowly won, and where those elected — from the national political campaign group’s vantage — deviate from their constituents.

“Californian Ryan Zinke has no business representing Montana in Congress,” said Tommy Garcia, a spokesperson for the DCCC, making a familiar knock against the Whitefish native.

Throughout the hard fought primary and general election campaign, Zinke was dogged by criticisms that he has closer ties to the West Coast state Montanans love to hate than the place where he grew up. Zinke listed his Whitefish home as his primary residence in campaign filings, but a Politico report in May 2022 found that his wife lists her Santa Barbara, California home as her primary residence.

Garcia, highlighting what his party’s operators view as weak points, also pointed to Zinke’s position on abortion, an issue that increasingly is seen as a political gift for Democrats following the overturning of Roe v. Wade. And he referenced allegations that Zinke misused his authority when he served as secretary of the Interior under former President Donald Trump.

In February 2022, federal investigators found that Zinke took liberties with his position while dealing with a development project in Whitefish. At the time, Zinke called the report, completed by the Interior Department’s inspector general, “a political hit job,” according to the Associated Press.

“Zinke thinks the government should decide what a woman does with her own reproductive health, has abused his position of power, and puts his party’s out-of-touch, extreme agenda before Montana values,” Garcia said.

Zinke beat his Democratic rival Monica Tranel, an attorney and former Olympic athlete, in November by a margin of less than five points, though that race included third-party candidate John Lamb, a Libertarian. Hogan pointed, though, to Zinke’s slim victory in the primary, where he faced challengers running to his right.

Zinke beat Al Olszewski, now chair of the Flathead County Republicans, by less than 2% of the vote.

“He is very vulnerable,” Hogan said.

Hogan said that Montana Democrats are going to focus on reminding voters “who Zinke is” — a man dogged by ethics complaints who resigned from the Trump administration. In a district that includes populous cities that tend to vote blue — think Missoula — the Democrats have a fighting chance, she said.

But Hogan reiterated that Zinke is his own worst problem.

ZINKE’S OFFICE brushed off the threat.

“They can go ahead and waste their money,” Heather Swift, Zinke’s chief of staff, wrote in an email. “Ryan Zinke has had a target on his back before and he isn’t afraid of some dark D.C. money.”

According to Swift, the Democrats' decision will only end up burdening Montanans with “terrible, lying ads.”

Zinke, who served as Montana’s sole U.S. congressman from 2014 to 2017, gave up the seat to join the Trump administration. When Montana gained a second congressional seat owing to population growth, Zinke — by then out of government — was quick to toss his hat in the ring.

Supporters of the congressman predict that Zinke will run for his seat again, though there is the possibility that he will try to unseat three-term U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat. Tester recently announced his intention to run for a fourth term in the upper house of Congress.

Zinke has kept his cards close to his vest when it comes to his future political ambitions, but Republicans in the Flathead expect he will win whichever race he enters.

“[The Democrats] have been unsuccessful against him every time,” said Olszewski from his vantage as chair of the Flathead County Republicans.

Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale, who holds Montana’s second congressional district, won by 12 points. Eastern Montana is solidly Republican, Olszewski said.

Western Montanans cut conservative as well, he said. According to Olszewski, Montanans want a Republican representing them in Washington, D.C.

“If the Democrats ran as a Republican or adopted the Republican solutions for how we should take care of Western Montana, they may have a better chance,” Olszewski said.

Montana House Speaker Matt Regier, a Republican from the Flathead Valley, also spoke to Montana’s conservative nature. Once trending purple, Montana has gone ruby red. Regier pointed to the results of the last election as proof positive of Montana’s status as a Republican bastion.

“Red states are getting redder and blue states are getting bluer,” Regier said. “Montana is definitely a red state.”

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at kheston@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4459.

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