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Watching results trickle in after the polls closed on election night, the word many political observers in Montana landed on was “surprise” to sum up the western U.S. House race.

Ballot counting

Election workers hand-count ballots in the Lincoln County annex building basement in Libby on Wednesday.

Vote tallies brought the biggest revelation in the five-way Republican primary, which was too close to call until two days after the election.

That’s because the 4,338 GOP votes from Lincoln County in the far-northwestern corner of the state proved pivotal in determining former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke eked out a win over Al Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon who previously served in the state Legislature.

“Most observers thought that Zinke probably had the advantage, so it was a bit of a surprise just how competitive this race has been,” said Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist at Carroll College in Helena, late last week.

On the Democratic side, the contest didn’t have an established frontrunner. So when, in the last fundraising period just a week and a half before the election, Missoula lawyer Monica Tranel for the first time outraised Bozeman nonprofit executive Cora Neumann, it looked like the matchup could have all the makings of a nail-biter.

But that wasn’t the case. Tranel won with 65% of the vote, a margin so decisive that Tom Winter, the other Democrat in the primary, conceded the race via tweet just 90 minutes after polls closed and Neumann, who still pulled in more cash in total over the primary, followed suit shortly after.

“It’s shocking the difference, just how well that (Tranel) did,” said Jessi Bennion, a political science professor in Montana. “Money does matter a lot, but it’s not everything.”

GOP squeaker

Even in his concession statement, Olszewski called himself a “big underdog.” So why was the Republican primary so competitive?

The 1,608-vote victory might not have been so unexpected to Olszewski, who hinted in interviews at internal polling showing he had a chance of winning. That poll may have guided the doctor, who didn’t have the same power of a quasi-incumbent like Zinke, as to what messages were resonating with the electorate — especially in pivotal Flathead County.

Both Olszewski and Zinke call the populous region home, and Olszewski ended up with 48% of the vote there to Zinke’s 31%.

“Clearly there was strength for (Olszewski) across the entire district,” Johnson said. “I think some of the issues that were brought out in the primary probably helped.”

Zinke campaigns

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.

That includes attacks made by Olszewski about Zinke’s time spent out of the state and Zinke’s wife claiming a California property as her primary residence. While that’s something Democrats threw at Zinke during his previous runs for U.S. House, they didn’t have nearly the same reverberations as when levied by Olszewski this cycle.

That’s because primary voters are of a different ilk, Bennion said. Generally they’re much more informed than the general election crowd, and when they cast a ballot it’s not about picking a partisan team so much as choosing the best player to take the lead.

Voters, especially up in the Flathead, might have also appreciated Olszewski’s aggressive opposition the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Water Compact, Bennion said. It’s still a hot-button issue in that part of the state and something Zinke supported.

“A lot of people are very angry about how that went down,” Bennion said.

Zinke touted a Trump endorsement, which Johnson said was meaningful but didn’t materialize as the be-all, end-all in the race. That’s also been the case for some other high-profile Trump endorsements, like the close-to-home example of Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin in Idaho, who failed to emerge from the GOP governor’s race primary there.

“Certainly any Republican candidate wants to have Trump’s support, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to win,” Johnson said.

Zinke attributed the closeness of the primary to what he said were negative attacks by everyone.

“I had two Democrats, I had a super-PAC and the Republican field all decided to run a very negative campaign against a single target, which was Ryan Zinke,” he said. There were three Democrats in the primary, and while Winter did take out a full-page ad calling Zinke a carpetbagger, he didn’t have the same financial resources to run TV ads like Tranel and Neumann.

It was clear in a post-election interview that dings over his residency were top of mind for Zinke.

“The idea that I’m not a Montanan, that’s absurd. … What became, I think, inappropriate, is … my wife has her property in Santa Barbara, which she inherited, and my wife has also has a right to work,” Zinke said. “We’ve been married almost 30 years, we’ve raised children in our house in Montana. ... I’ve been a congressman, a state (representative), same house, you know, all the all the way through. But my wife and I are both passionate about her ability to keep her family’s property intact. And it’s not easy.”

On his poor performance in Flathead County, Zinke cited low voter turnout working in concert with the ads against him. Turnout statewide was 39.2%, while it was 35.65% in the Flathead. That’s down from 41% there in the 2018 midterm and up from 29% in 2014.

“You throw enough mud, sure, it began to stick,” Zinke said.

While Olszewski himself has run for statewide office several times and been a state lawmaker, Zinke generally has something close to the power of an incumbent in this race, having been a congressman from Montana before. Zinke leaned into that name recognition and skipped several candidate forums, something that could have also hurt him.

“What I noticed toward the end is there was a lot of debates going on in the GOP primary where they were all showing up except Zinke,” Bennion said. “That perhaps gave the impression to voters he wasn’t as invested in the race and was acting like he was a shoo-in.”

Zinke defended his lack of attendance, citing scheduling issues and pointing to an event he held with U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, who Zinke said would be chair of the Agriculture Committee if Republicans take back the House. Still, Zinke acknowledged not attending forums gave his opponents “a narrative, certainly.”

Democratic landslide

Unlike Olszewski, the Tranel campaign didn’t do internal polling but expected to come out on top, though perhaps not by more than 21,600 votes it won by. Tranel ran a more effective campaign, Johnson said, leading to the “dramatic margin” of victory.

The campaign played up Tranel’s biography of growing up on a ranch in the eastern part of the state, showing she had the Montana bona fides necessary to face Zinke. Ads hyped her performance as an Olympian rower, telling voters she was part of the pivotal “engine room” that propelled the team to victories. And Tranel held up her resume as a lawyer who went up against corporations as a roadmap for the work she wants to continue in Congress.

“It seemed to register with primary voters and those issues about coming from outside Montana that hurt Zinke also hurt Neumann,” Johnson said.

Savvy primary voters likely determined Tranel’s message proved she’d be the strongest candidate to go up against Zinke, Bennion said.

Monica Tranel

Monica Tranel talks with a supporter during an election watch event on June 7 at the Union Club Bar & Grill in Missoula.

Tranel secured some prominent endorsements, including one from former Democratic Gov. Brain Schweitzer. A lot of Montana Democrats view the Schweitzer reign as the golden era in Montana politics, Bennion said, making that recommendation powerful.

Tranel also gave the impression of being everywhere all at once. She made the effort to show up in places where there weren’t many Democratic votes to win, but her presence carried an outsized effect on those small populations.

On Memorial Day, she walked in the Corvallis parade in the GOP stronghold of Ravalli County. Come Election Day, there were just 3,335 Democratic votes in the Bitterroot, but 74% of them went to Tranel.

“We got out and talked to people where they were. We had an incredible field effort,” Tranel said. “We showed up places, met people and talked to them and I think ultimately that’s what Montanans really expect from the people who represent them is you show up, and we did that.”

Onto the general

Because the race between Zinke and Olszewski was so close, it’s “basically like handing (Tranel) this messaging gift to be able to run on,” Bennion said.

Being tied to California likely hurt Zinke in the primary and proved enough of an attack that his campaign cut an ad to respond directly to the claims. And while Tranel’s campaign has raised the carpetbagger label, it’s now working to portray Zinke as a sell-out by using her work as a lawyer to contrast with his consulting for oil companies and multiple ethics investigations while Secretary of the Interior.

In her victory speech on election night, Tranel used the phrase “purchased politicians,” a phrase voters should get used to hearing.

“I think Montanans have spoken pretty loud and clear that they don’t want corruption in our state,” Tranel said in an interview, citing both her own victory and how close Olszewski came to picking of Zinke as evidence of that. “ … That was the message I ran on, my track record of standing up to corporate greed and the cases I’ve won.”

Zinke acknowledged it would be a challenging primary, and also tried to turn Tranel’s professional background against her.

“This is going to be, I would say, a tough race ahead,” Zinke said. “I can’t see a path ahead for what I would consider, most Montanans would consider, a liberal environmental lawyer from Missoula. So she’s gonna have to deal with her past.”

While the western U.S. House district was drawn to be more competitive for a Democratic candidate, it still likely leans Republican, Bennion said.

“Many more Republicans turned out in this primary to vote, that to me shows there’s that normal midterm election penalty backlash we’ll probably see,” Bennion said. “That doesn’t mean it’s undoable for Democrats.”

A total of 84,534 people voted in the GOP western House primary, while 56,717 voted on the Democratic side, for a 60-40 favoring of Republicans.

Tranel’s already shown a strong ground game, something that’s proven vital for any Democrat to win statewide in the past. Pointing to Zinke ducking forums in the primary, she laid table for portraying Zinke as absentee.

“He’s too good for Montana,” Tranel said. “He wants to be in Santa Barbara with his buddies or Florida or wherever with his rich friends doing rich-boy things, and that’s not who we are.”

In a post-election interview, Zinke said he’d do a debate with Tranel. But even if the closeness of the GOP primary shook Zinke up, he’s still likely to benefit from two factors beyond the two candidates the race — the nationalization of politics and the blunt reality of a midterm cycle.

Beyond local

Politics have become nationalized at every level, even down to local school board races. Voters can get swept up in cultural issues like critical race theory that quickly dominate the dialogue instead of questions about thing like if Montanans afford to live in their communities, Bennion said.

A race getting nationalized puts a Democrat in Montana in a tricky spot. Campaign strategists counsel candidates to localize elections and talk about local concerns. But making a campaign about local issues is more and more of a challenge when the voters answering the door bring up national culture wars.

In the primary, Tranel talked about using her longevity in the state and family connections to push through meeting a partisan voter and engage instead on the nitty-gritty. She also offered up specifics on how she’d address things like climate change, a lack of affordable housing and health care in several of the candidate forums she attended around the state during the primary.

“I expect her to keep doing that, but it’s hard when everything is nationalized,” Bennion said. “Especially when it’s all about those cultural issues. … It’s just a tricky spot to be in right now.”

In Missoula on Friday in a brief interview, Zinke first turned to a national point, saying that he wanted to bring Republicans “back to a common goal of …making sure that we retire Nancy Pelosi.”

Zinke talked about concern for the “direction of the country” as well.

“It’s our country,” Zinke said. “And we’re all going to have to participate in this, otherwise the country is going to fail.”

But he did pivot to a local problem — the cost of living in Montana these days.

“Our campaign was focused on issues that I think affect us all, primarily energy, supply chain, … inflation” Zinke said in Missoula. “And I’m the only Republican that is talking about affordable housing, (which) should resonate because it is a problem, especially here.”

Primary election voting

Election official Theresa Noonan, right, helps Julie Stephenson deposit her ballot during voting in the primary election at the Missoula Senior Center on June 7.

Tranel actually got nearly 1,600 more votes than Zinke in last week’s election, but that comes with a major caveat that Zinke’s next-closest opponent got nearly 13,750 more votes than both of Tranel’s opponents combined.

And while Tranel even as early as an interview in April was talking about the need to pick up those undecided, independent and even Zinke-skeptical Republican voters, the national narrative could prove as big of a challenge as Zinke himself.

“That may be part of the reason why some of those issues have not been as effective for Democrats in the general election against Republicans when you have the national narrative, whether it’s through social media or cable news,” Johnson said.

Another important factor in the general election is what Bennion called the “midterm penalty” or “midterm backlash.”

“Political midterms are becoming a statement against whoever is in power, so you’re going to see Republicans do well in the midterms across the country,” Bennion said. “Midterms a lot of times are just about a penalty or backlash of who is in power.”

Still, the race will be decided by Montana voters who make up the newly drawn congressional region, and for political watchers it’s exciting to see unfold.

“This is the first time the western district in this configuration gets to decide what they want and that will say a lot about where our state is at with our politics,” Bennion said.

— Reporters Tom Kuglin and Seaborn Larson contributed to this story.

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