Ryan Zinke attacked as a Californian as he attempts comeback in Montana
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (National Parks Service photo)

When Monica Tranel corrected Ryan Zinke on the full name of the monopoly power utility in Montana, the audience broke the “no cheering” rule.

Zinke, the Republican and former congressman running for the U.S. House of Representatives, touted American energy as cleaner and better than foreign energy. He pointed to his opponent, “an environmental attorney” who has sued the power company, as to blame for “Northwest Energy” raising rates.

“To think you’re going to make Montana one giant windmill, and hydrogen is going to provide the power, is just simply nuts,” Zinke said.

Democrat Tranel’s retort with the full name of the power company also served as commentary on Zinke’s residence. Zinke’s wife calls a home in California her primary residence, and he has listed a California mailing address in consulting paperwork.

“It’s NorthWestern Energy, which you would know if you lived here in Montana and paid bills to them,” Tranel said, stressing the “ern” in the name and eliciting the only clapping and cheering of the debate.

Thursday night, Zinke, Tranel and Libertarian John Lamb debated in front of roughly 265 people at Montana Technological University in Butte who mostly heeded the “no cheering, no jeering” rule moderators requested. Lee Enterprises and Montana Public Radio hosted the forum among the candidates running for the state’s new western district.

Friday, political analysts said they didn’t hear the candidates plow new ground in the debate, and the politicians displayed both predicted strategies and less expected ones. It was the second time in the campaign the candidates have faced off in person.

The punchy remark from Missoula’s Tranel about NorthWestern was a memorable line in the hourlong debate, said Christina Barsky, political analyst with the University of Montana: “That was a good zinger.”

But the candidates didn’t diverge from core positions, and Jeremy Johnson, with Carroll College, said without a significant faux pas that’s repeated over and over again to voters, debates aren’t likely to sway most people.

“Generally debates are not game changers, right?” said Johnson, a political science faculty member in Helena.

However, he said there is one group of “persuadable voters,” and part of Zinke’s performance was aimed at them. Zinke, projected to win 94 times out of 100 by FiveThirtyEight, took direct swipes at not only Tranel, but at Lamb, projected to win less than 1 time out of 100.

“Your comment that we should not have a border between Mexico and the U.S. is unsound, unsafe,” said Zinke, former Secretary of the Interior, to Lamb. “Without a border, we don’t have a country. Period.”

Lee Banville, political analyst and journalism professor at UM, said enthusiasm for Zinke among the GOP isn’t high. In attacking Lamb, Zinke’s campaign wants to prevent any push toward the Libertarian.

“If there’s a soft spot, which we saw in the primary, it’s that there are conservative Republicans who are not sold on Ryan Zinke because they voted for Al Olszewski,” Banville said. “I think he’s sort of defending his right flank.”

Zinke was expected to easily win the primary among five candidates. However, the more conservative Olszewski took 40 percent of the vote, and Zinke took 42 percent in a nailbiter.

In recent races, Libertarians have earned as much as 6 percent or 7 percent of the vote, likely pulling support away from Republican candidates, Johnson said. So Zinke, a U.S. Navy SEAL who also attacked Lamb on lack of support for veterans, is trying to consolidate the vote.

“He (Zinke) does not want to bleed voters to the Libertarian side,” Johnson said.

In his own opening comments, Lamb said he doesn’t like big money in politics, and he noted the only campaign manager he has is himself and his wife. Lamb has 12 children, and he noted his wife and six children were sitting in the audience that night.

“I believe that people need a grassroots type candidate to lead this western district, and I believe I’m that middle guy that can do that for Montana,” Lamb said.

A couple of federal investigation reports into Zinke’s actions from his time as U.S. Secretary of the Interior also played a role in the debate. Zinke kicked off his responses to a question about campaign civility by defending himself against findings in the reports, arguing anyone can file complaints, and the federal government has a duty to run them down.

“The things I got investigated on? My socks. My dog. I even got investigated on the horse I rode in on,” Zinke said.

A report in February and one in August from the Inspector General’s Office of the U.S. Department of the Interior found Zinke did not tell the truth to investigators about his involvement in a Whitefish development, the subject of the February report, and in his dealings with corporate casino representatives in his decision related to a tribal casino, the subject of the latter report. In both cases, the U.S. Department of Justice declined to prosecute.

In her own statements about the reports, Tranel repeatedly told audience members not to trust her own comments or those of her opponents, but to read the documents for themselves. She said she had copies of them available at the event.

Barsky, faculty with the Department of Public Administration and Policy, noted Tranel had also directed candidates to other source materials — for financial information and raw video from an earlier forum — and she was the only candidate who continually advised voters to look up information themselves and to also provide them a place to do so.

“Here’s the fact, and here’s where to find it,” Barsky said of Tranel’s approach.

Instead of just telling voters, she’s leading them to the source, and Barsky said that strategy may be one that helps speak truth to power. In pointing them to evidence and in other comments, Tranel speaks directly to audiences.

“The way that Tranel is presenting herself is as a representative of the people,” Barsky said. “She believes in representative democracy.”

Banville, though, said he expected Tranel to come out harder against Zinke. In particular with the federal investigation reports, both produced under an Inspector General appointed by Trump, Banville said she didn’t go after him as aggressively as she could have.

“It’s not that she was easy on him,” Banville said. “But there are only so many opportunities she’s going to have to sort of land some blows, and this was one of the bigger opportunities.”

Tranel told the audience everything Zinke said to investigators was contradicted by emails, other testimony, and an interview with a U.S. senator. She said she had printed out copies of the reports so people could read for themselves the lies he told to “cover up his corruption.”

“Don’t take his word for it. Don’t take mine. Ryan is lying again,” Tranel said. “It’s what he does best.”

Since Zinke is dismissing the investigations as partisan, Banville said, it’s not impactful for a Democratic candidate to say a Republican candidate was dishonest. Banville said it’s more powerful for people to see the information in the actual documents.

“But that’s a leap of faith that the voters are going to go and do this kind of independent research — and then believe the report that they read,” Banville said.

Zinke and Tranel will meet Saturday in a televised debate by MTN News. Thursday, Tranel urged MTN News to include Lamb as well, who has debated her in other forums without Zinke.

Quick hits from the debate

Three candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives in Montana’s new western district answered questions Thursday on everything from gun control — all support the Second Amendment — to election security to inflation.

Given that school shootings have reached their highest point since the start of data collection, according to a question from Montana Public Radio, does Congress have a role in preventing future tragedies?

“I’m pro gun,” said Republican Ryan Zinke. “You ain’t taking the guns away from Montana.”

But he said protections for schools are important, as are mental health concerns. He said law enforcement officers need better options when they pull into a driveway and someone is “clearly deranged” than shipping someone to the state mental health facility for 10 days — and having them land right back in the street.

“We need to find a better way to do that,” Zinke said.

Democrat Monica Tranel said the U.S. Constitution has 27 amendments, and she supports them all, first of all. She also said conservative people she’s talked with support longer background checks as a reasonable approach to the problem.

“How do we keep our communities safe and keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people?” Tranel said.

John Lamb, a Libertarian, said people have not only a constitutional right to own a gun, but they have a God-given right. And he supports arming teachers, putting guards in schools, and deregulating gun laws.

“We can’t take guns away from good people to stop bad people,” Lamb said.

In direct response to a question about whether Joe Biden was legitimately elected as president, Lamb said he’s the president “whether I like him or I like Trump.” But he confessed he liked neither to mark the ballot.

“I did not vote for either one of them,” he said. “I voted for Jo Jorgensen because I figured … she was a lesser of the two evils.”

Tranel said it’s “irresponsible and nonsense” to suggest that elections aren’t free and secure, and she’s talked to elections officials in Montana who have been on the job for 30 years who are now getting death threats.

“Our elections are fair and secure. And we need to stand by that,” Tranel said.

Zinke said he couldn’t speak to the security of elections in other states, and he said Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg “put the finger on the scale.” But he said he thought Montana did a “pretty good job” based on his conversations with county clerks.

“If there was, you know, some tomfoolery, it was small,” Zinke said of the clerks’ assessments.

Candidates also were asked to talk about their plans to address inflation. Zinke said economists will say energy costs and spending are two critical factors, and he criticized Tranel for supporting trillions of dollars of new spending, such as in the Inflation Reduction Act.

“Monica wants to kill … American energy, which will affect Montana’s economy and quite frankly, national security,” Zinke said.

Tranel, though, said she’s the only candidate with a concrete plan to address inflation, and she said her record shows she’s helped Montana’s economy. She also said the top three issues facing Montanans are “housing, housing, and housing,” and her plan offers solutions, including ideas for child care for families.

“I’ve brought hundreds of millions of dollars of new projects, good jobs and real investment here in Montana over the last 25 years,” Tranel said.

Lamb said he talked to a Bozeman veteran who owed $13,000 in taxes and had to sell things because he thought he was going to lose his home. Lamb worries about his own situation, too, with 12 children and $5,000 in taxes to pay in Norris, outside Ennis.

“I’m going to have to sell my farm if this keeps going up,” Lamb said.

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