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Montana politics, elections and legislative news.

Saldin: Zinke A Typical And Surprising Pick For Interior

Rep. Ryan Zinke is rumored to be President-elect Trump's nominee for secretary of the Interior.
Eric Whitney
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Rep. Ryan Zinke is rumored to be President-elect Trump's nominee for secretary of the Interior.

The news that Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke is apparently President-elect Trump’s nominee for secretary of the Interior is still reverberating across the country and in Montana. For perspective, we’re now joined by Rob Saldin, a political science professor at the University of Montana, and analyst for MTPR. I asked him for his initial impression of the news:

Rob Saldin: On one level it's been kind of a bizarre process. About a week ago it looked like it was going to be the governor of Oklahoma, and then several days later all appearances were that it was going to be a congresswoman from Washington.

It's a pretty major accomplishment for him [Zinke]. It's always kind of neat deal to have somebody from your state be running one of these agencies, especially when you're from Montana, Interior is one of the big ones. It oversees the Bureau of Land Management the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife — aside from the Forest Service which is in Agriculture — we're talking about all the federal public lands. So it's an important post nationally, but especially out here.

Eric Whitney: In your eyes is it just an obvious yes if you're tapped for a position like this, you'll leave your seat? I guess what are the implications if he does leave that seat?

UM Political Science Professor Robert Saldin
Credit Courtesy Rob Saldin
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UM Political Science Professor Robert Saldin

RS: On the one hand, it is a little surprising, just in the sense that Zinke was just elected to his second term. All indications were that he was going to challenge [Jon] Tester here in a couple years, try to move up to the Senate. I don't think he formally announced that, but there was a lot of speculation of that point, and he had said that he would be looking at it closely, or something to that effect.

EW: If this is true and he is appointed secretary of Interior, that would leave Montana's lone seat in the House empty. Who do you think might be in the running to fill it?

RS: We're going to have to have a special election and my understanding is that that election would be here in the next 100 days or so; or at least within 100 days of when Zinke leaves his position. So I guess that would depend on the confirmation process.

Certainly Denise Juneau is still out there. She was just defeated by Zinke. Matt Rosendale has indicated his interest in running for Congress. I'm sure there'll be other people who are interested.

"You know, most conservation groups, when they look at this pick are going to be thrilled. Some of the names that were bandied about were just downright frightening for some of these groups. Remember that Sarah Palin, for instance, was in the mix for this job."

EW: One of the first names that came to my mind was Greg Gianforte. Do you think there's any reason to believe he might be interested in the job, or running for the job?

RS: You know, I wouldn't be surprised. He ran fairly close to Governor Bullock. He certainly has the name recognition now that he didn't have prior to that run. Obviously one of the big differences between being governor and being in Congress is that you're back in Washington D.C. So whether or not he has the interest to relocate back to Washington would be the big question there. And whether he's ready to jump back in after a kind of bruising campaign this fall and go through that process again — those are questions only he can answer. But certainly he has the statewide name recognition and stature right now. If he did want to run he'd be formidable.

EW: To keep the focus on Washington for the moment; why do you think this pick makes sense for President-elect Trump?

RS: Well, I think Zinke, while we typically think of him as more of a foreign affairs, national security guy, he also has been engaged on public lands issues. I mean, the first thing is that he's from a Western state. Interior almost always goes to someone from a Western state, so he checks off that box. Just because there's so much public land out here, these issues really resonate out here in a way that they don't back East. And most of the issues are located here out in the West. So on that level, Zinke certainly fits the mold.

He also has been involved on public lands issues back in his time in the state legislature. He has made public lands a prominent part of this campaign. He has kind of planted his flag as a defender of public lands, and that stakes out some territory that's a bit unique for Republicans. All the momentum in the Republican party right now seems to be on the side of the talk of transferring lands from federal control to the states. The more extreme version of that is actually selling public lands, where he opposes that. He's been engaged on these issues and he's also a big guy on a kind of 'all-of-the-above' approach to energy development. So he kind of has a little bit of a green thumb when it comes to public land, but he's also a pretty aggressive on developing for energy.

You know, most conservation groups, when they look at this pick are going to be thrilled. Some of the names that were bandied about were just downright frightening for some of these groups. Remember that Sarah Palin, for instance, was in the mix for this job. Now to be sure, there will probably be some environmental groups that will oppose Zinke because of his position on energy development and related issues. But for people who were concerned that the Interior post might go to someone in the mold of say, Utah's Rob Bishop — who's one of the most prominent advocates for selling off public land — this has to be very encouraging.

"Certainly he [Gianforte] has the statewide name recognition and stature right now. If he did want to run he'd be formidable."

EW: In the days ahead what are you going to be most interested in watching for or looking for in response to this news?

RS: I suspect that Zinke will have a fairly easy path to confirmation, and I think that will not be the case for all of Trump's picks, but I don't expect it'll be a problem for Zinke. What I think will be more interesting is to see what happens in Montana politics. What's the fallout? We're losing our lone member of the House. There's gonna be a real fight on to see who replaces him, and then it also really shakes up the 2018 Senate race, which everyone was expecting to be this big showdown between Zinke and Tester, so there's a big question mark there as well.

EW: Rob Saldin, thanks so much for joining us on Montana Public Radio.

RS: You bet Eric, thanks.

EW: Rob Saldin teaches Political Science at the University of Montana.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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