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Montana Politicians React To Reports Of Zinke's Nomination As Interior Secretary

Graphic: Montana Public Radio News, Politics

It’s been just over a day since news broke that Montana’s sole Congressional Representative Ryan Zinke may ascend to President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet. But Montana Republican and Democratic Party officials are already thinking about what comes next if Zinke accepts Trump’s nomination.

"Montana’s loss would be the nation’s gain if Congressman Zinke is called forward to serve in that capacity," says Jeff Essmann, chair of the Montana Republican Party.

He’s optimistic that a Zinke-led Interior Department could mean more opportunities to develop natural resources, like oil, gas and coal, in Montana’s federal public lands:

"I’m excited that the Trump administration plans to unleash the economic power of the resources of the nation; both its manpower and its natural resources," Essmann says. "The federal government does control a lot of resources, especially in our end of the country."

If Zinke does accept the nomination, the next step would be getting him confirmed by the Senate. That could happen any time after President-elect Trump is inaugurated on January 20.

He would then resign his seat in Congress, which would trigger a special election in Montana to fill the vacancy. State statute provides the governor 85 to 100 days to call this special election, during which time delegates of the Republican, Democratic and third parties would meet in convention to choose a candidate to run for the vacated House seat.

The last time the state held a special election to fill a vacated House seat was in 1969, when Representative James Battin resigned to serve as a federal judge.

It’s a multi-step process with many unknowns, but Jeff Essmann, with the state GOP, doesn’t think anything will really change:

"We’re confident with the strong appeal of the Trump economic growth message, and the strong record that we had in the last election just a few weeks ago that we’ll retain ownership of that seat."

People can nominate themselves or others. Though Essmann says he’s received many calls already from people interested in the position, he declined to name any potential front-runners for the candidacy.

Greg Gianforte, who lost to Steve Bullock in the race for the governor’s seat, wrote in a statement he’s received calls, texts and emails over the last day encouraging him to run. But for now, he writes, "Like many Montanans, I am hoping for more snow, looking forward to Christmas with our family and getting in some hunting."

Across the aisle, Nancy Keenan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, sees a door left ajar by Zinke’s elevation:

"You know, I think this is a real opportunity. You know, 39 days ago, we thought Montanans had chosen a Republican to serve them in Washington, D.C., and he chose to take another job."

Keenan says this could be a chance for Montanans who are concerned over November’s election results to balance the scales:

"To elect a Democrat to this House seat might be the way of assuring that Montana has a voice in Washington and keeping some of the more extreme agenda off the docket here by the Republicans," Keenan says.

But she’s quick to add it’s only been a day, and Zinke hasn’t even accepted Trump’s offer. The party does not have a candidate in mind, and as for Denise Juneau, current superintendent of public instruction who unsuccessfully ran against Zinke for the House seat:

"That's a question you have to ask Denise," Keenan answers.

Montana Public Radio has been unable to reach Denise Juneau on this issue.

Like Jeff Essmann with the state Republican Party, Keenan says Zinke’s potential appointment could mean Montana values are represented at the cabinet-level. She says she hopes Zinke carries his roots into the position by protecting public lands.

And if he doesn’t:

"We're not going to let it just have an admin that thinks the only way is to sell them [public lands] off, or use big business as an advantage in our lands, and we will make sure and hold him up to account," says Keenan.

Zinke has yet to accept or decline the position of secretary of the interior, though CNN reported yesterday he has already said yes.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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