MISSOULA — When the primary election results from Lincoln County came in Thursday afternoon, they filled in the last piece in the general election picture for Montana’s new western congressional district – confirming former U.S. Rep. and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as the Republican nominee.
It took almost two days for the final confirmation, as Lincoln County completed a full hand count of ballots.
“The election was a little longer than what we anticipated, but we’re victorious, out in front,” Zinke said. “Now it’s a matter of unifying the message.”
Zinke finished with about a 1,600-vote lead over physician and former state Sen. Al Olszewski in the Republican primary for the 1st Congressional District. That’s a margin of about two percentage points.
Zinke told MTN the result was closer than he had expected. He said voters in the district had seen through what he called “a negative campaign.”
“Primaries are always difficult; this one was difficult,” he said. “It seemed like I had two Democrats, a super PAC and all the opponents on the Republican side all targeting me, so it amplified it.”
Zinke said he spoke to Olszewski Thursday evening – as well as to his counterpart in the eastern congressional district, Rep. Matt Rosendale. Despite the division in the primary, he said he believes he can get on the same page with all his fellow Republicans.
“Now it’s looking at the general, making sure we understand what we face – we face a Nancy Pelosi and we face a moment in our history: what course is this country going to take?” Zinke said. “I’m an optimist, I think we can lower energy prices, I think we can look at inflation, make sure we control inflation, supply chain and fix this country.”
Campaigning for the general election began even before the Republican race was settled. Zinke’s Democratic opponent is Missoula attorney Monica Tranel. In a statement Wednesday, her campaign accused Zinke of a “record of corruption” and said the primary result showed “his own party does not trust him.”
“Montanans – Democrats and Republicans – made it clear in yesterday’s primary that they want a representative in Congress to represent them, rather than the corporations that exploit them,” Tranel said in the statement.
Zinke said he plans to draw attention to Tranel’s record as a “liberal environmental lawyer.”
The western congressional district is expected to be more competitive between Republicans and Democrats than the eastern district. However, many analysts are predicting a difficult national environment for House Democrats this year.