Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Montana politics, elections and legislative news

What's Next For Montana's Special House Election?

Graphic: Montana Public Radio News, Politics

It’s been just over a week since Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke was nominated to be secretary of Interior by President-elect Donald Trump. Since then, at least half-a-dozen Republicans and one Democrat have expressed interest in replacing him. If Zinke is confirmed by the Senate, Montana will hold a special election next year to fill his House seat.

To talk over what this means for Montana, we’re joined by Rob Saldin, a political science professor at the University of Montana and analyst for MTPR.

Eric Whitney: Welcome Rob.

Rob Saldin: Thanks Eric, good to be here.

EW: Is it a given that Ryan Zinke is going to be confirmed by the Senate, as all cabinet appointments have to be?

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

RS: I think so, unless there's something really scandalous in his background that hasn't come out in two runs for Congress. I don't see Democrats choosing to train their fire on him. Some of these nominees that Trump has put forward will be fought by Democrats, but I think there are people who are much more objectionable to Democrats than Ryan Zinke; who, I think from the perspective of many conservationists who were worried about who might get that Interior post, Zinke actually is far preferable to a lot of other names that were under consideration. So I expect him to have a pretty easy confirmation.

EW: There have been a couple news sources that have brought up a controversy that came up when he was running about him traveling to Montana while he was a Navy SEAL and submitting reimbursement requests for that. Basically charging the Navy for travel to Montana for personal reasons. Do you think there's much there that might derail him?

RS: Right, that has re-surfaced. It came up a couple years ago in his first run for Congress. I don't think it rises to the level of something that's gonna hold him back. The reports I've seen suggest that the amount of money in question is $211, I believe. I guess you could say if he's breaking the rules, that's a problem whether it's $200 or $200,000. But no, for $200 I don't think that's something that's going to tank his candidacy.

EW: And significantly, I think, Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat who has a vote in the Senate, obviously; he's come out saying he supports Ryan Zinke. So I guess it would be really surprising if he was not confirmed.

RS: I think so Eric. It would be a shock.

EW: Lets go over what the process is for coming up with candidates for the special election. How will the parties select who gets to be on the ballot for this special election?

RS: It's a different process than we're used to, and the process could be very important for figuring out who's going to be running for this position. It's going to be determined by conventions that the parties hold. So this is not a primary election, this is a convention in which the party elites, the leaders of the party from across the state will gather to determine who the nominee is. And so I think in practical terms what this means is that maybe name recognition is not quite as important as it would be in a primary. People who have ingratiated themselves with the party leadership are going to be better positioned maybe than someone who just has some name recognition around the state. What goes on behind the scenes — this is something like what people refer to with "smoke-filled rooms." Candidates being chosen in the old days for president, in these smoke-filled rooms. We'll it's going to be something like that playing out here in Montana to determine the nominees.

EW: We'll talk about who some of those potential candidates are in a minute, but there's also a process for independents to get on the ballot if people don't want to go through that party process and want to put themselves on the ballot. We asked Secretary of State Linda McCullouch what the process is for that earlier this week:

"They have to gather signatures, and those signatures are 5 percent of the total votes cast for the successful candidate for the same office in the last election. The last election was 2016, so it would be 14,268 verified signatures."

EW: To me getting more than 14,000 verified signatures sounds like a pretty high bar. Do you anticipate seeing any independent candidates on the ballot in this special election?

RS: Well Eric, I agree with you, it is a high bar. I would be a little bit surprised. You never know, but unlike a typical election where you have a lot of advanced warning, somebody has to put together an operation pretty quickly, and so I think it's probably unlikely.

EW: And we should say that when we talked to Secretary of State McCullouch, she said that so far no one has contacted her office. No one has actually picked up petitions to start gathering signatures — which they could do now. So as far as we know, no one's out there beating the bushes trying to get on the ballot.

To go back to the folks in the major parties who have expressed an interest in trying to get their party's nomination, the first person to raise their hand was Ed Buttrey, Republican state senator from Great Falls. When we interviewed him on Monday he referenced Ryan Zinke's decisive defeat of his Democratic opponent in the fall Denise Juneau:

"Why did Ryan beat Denise Juneau so bad? Well I think it's because Ryan took the right, he took the middle, he took the independents, and I think he took a pretty good number of people on the left. I think for us to win this special election we're going to have to have a very Ryan Zinke-like candidate."

Senator Buttrey says he's politically similar to Ryan Zinke. Do you think that's accurate? Do you think he has what it takes to win the Republican nomination for this special election?

RS: Absolutely he's similar to Ryan Zinke in that he comes from the moderate faction of the party. He's probably most well known here for sponsoring the Medicaid expansion bill in the previous legislature. This was one of Governor Bullock's top priorities, one of his greatest successes. So Buttrey led that moderate, so called "responsible Republican" faction that worked with Democrats in the legislature and the governor to pass Medicaid expansion.

EW: To me that sounds like a handicap because as you said, the folks who are going to decide who the nominee is are the party insiders. And those moderate Republicans in the legislature who teamed up with Democrats on that Medicaid bill and some other legislation; they're not necessarily popular with the party insiders who are going to select the nominee for the special election.

RS: Absolutely. There's been a lot of frustration with this relatively small group of moderates in the legislature who have worked on Medicaid expansion as well as other things with the Democrats. And so, yeah, Buttrey is in a little bit of a tight spot there. Now he's going to make the case that putting forward someone who can appeal to a wide range of Montanans is going to position the party better to hold onto that congressional seat. And remember two years ago, Ryan Zinke, he ran as the moderate in that primary. Now he was up against several other people from the conservative block who kind of split that vote. He managed to get through that primary in a way that he might well not have if he had been facing just one single conservative who couldn't gotten the whole conservative vote.

EW: Well speaking of the likelihood of a moderate Republican winning the party's nomination, whoever is nominated, they have to win the special election. Is a special election similar or different to a general election, in terms of turnout or what kind of campaign you have to run to win a special election?

RS: It certainly will be different than a typical election. In fact I think this is the thing that Democrats have to be pinning their hopes to. You look at this seat, everything favors the Republicans, but it might be the case that after this election we just had, that the Democratic base gets a little fired up, see this as an opportunity to advance their agenda. Maybe Republican turnout is a little bit depressed without Trump at the top of the ticket. So, I certainly think we can expect a lower voter turnout. It's likely that these two candidates aren't going to have a whole lot of prior name recognition. There are a couple people who could jump in and maybe upset that, but we probably aren't going to have well known people running, and it's going to happen pretty quickly and on a schedule that isn't like that of other elections.

EW: The state law says that Governor Bullock has to schedule the special election 85-100 days after the seat becomes vacant. So obviously we don't know when Zinke's confirmation hearing will be held, how long that might take, but assuming he's confirmed an he resigns the seat, then 85-100 days after that. So we don't know exactly when that election's gonna happen.

Speaking of candidates with name recognition, Denise Juneau obviously ran in the general election, lost by a little over 15 points to incumbent Ryan Zinke. We haven't heard from her on whether or not she's interested. The last we heard from her was right before this appointment was announced. She said she was interested in applying to be president of the University of Montana. What do you think her chances might be if she choose to run?

RS: Ont the one hand, her campaign did gain some traction with the liberal base of the Democratic party in the state. There was a lot of enthusiasm for some fo the things her candidacy represented it terms of breaking through some barriers, being the first woman in a long time. She would've been the first Native American, the first gay member of Congress from Montana.

ES: The first openly gay ...

RS: ... first openly gay member of Congress from Montana. So all these things were very exciting, yet on the other hand, it was not close. She got beat by a very wide margin, I think  a bigger margin than most people expected. So that raises a question of do Democrats want to throw her out again after she just, a matter of weeks ago, was not picked by the voters? And that might depend on who the other candidates are. There have been a lot fewer on the Democratic side than we've seen come out on the Republican side.

EW: So far, the only Democrat that I'm aware of who's indicated that she might be interested in running is Amanda Curtis, a school teacher from Butte who's getting ready to start her second term in the Montana Legislature in January. Here's what she told us on Wednesday:

"I am perhaps the only Montanan right now who has lived through this challenge before, but the starting point is a little bit different this time."

Do you think Amanda Curtis would be a good candidate for the Democrats in the special election?

RS: She of course, was also the replacement U.S. Senate candidate a couple years ago after Jon Walsh withdrew following the plagiarism scandal. So she has experience running a  campaign and putting a campaign together in a very short time.

EW: We should also mention that didn't work out so well. Steve Daines won that election by quite a substantial margin.

RS: Right. And so there again, there's a little bit of concern on the Democratic side about putting forward someone who's so recently been defeated in a statewide election. I think Curtis, given everything she was up against two years ago, ran an admirable campaign, but you're right, it didn't come close. I think the question for Democrats is who is out there at this point who could come close? Their whole slate of kind of, rising stars, got wiped out here just a few weeks ago, so there's not an obvious go-to person on the Democratic side except for Brian Schweitzer. He's the one person out there who could really mix things up. And I think if he did get in, he would turn this race instantaneously into a toss-up, or even one that leans a little bit in the Democratic direction ...

EW: Obviously, former Governor Brian Schweitzer. And as far as we know he's said he's not interested in running.

RS: He hasn't totally ruled it out, but he's saying things similar to what he's said in the past. Indicating a lack of interest in serving in Congress. Frustration that not much gets done back in Washington, and voicing a desire to stay here in Montana. So he has been talking about running for governor again in four years, but from what he's said so far, it doesn't sound like he's going to throw his hat into the ring for this one.

EW: Lets round up the other Republicans who've said they either will or might pursue their party's nomination to run for Zinke's seat. There's six of them that we know of.  Besides State Senator Ed Buttrey, they include two other state legislators, Representative Daniel Zolnikov of Billings,and State Senator Scott Sales of Great Falls. Billings District Court Judge Russell Fagg has indicated he might be interested. Gary Carlson of Corvallis who publishes a conservative online newsletter. And Bozeman construction contractor Eugene Graf IV. What do you make of these potential candidates?

RS: The one in that bunch that stick out to me is Scott Sales. He's the president of the Senate. He definitely represents the conservative faction. If Buttrey, who we discussed earlier, represents the moderate faction, Sales is most certainly from the conservative block. One thing that struck me just a few days ago in his interview with Montana Public Radio, he kind of described himself in contrast with Ryan Zinke, saying that he's more fiscally conservative than Zinke, and I think that's certainly true, but to define yourself against one of the state's leading Republicans struck me as a little bit of a surprise. So he certainly represents that conservative wing.

One other person who's been talked about that you didn't mention is Senator Matt Rosendale who just won election to be Montana's auditor. Also represents the conservative faction, out of Glendive, ran against Ryan Zinke in 2014. One big drawback here is that if Rosendale did jump into this and won, Bullock would be then in the position of selecting his replacement as auditor, also a position on the Land Board.

EW: Another prominent name that we haven't mentioned yet is of course Greg Gianforte who ran unsuccessfully for governor. A week ago, we asked if he was interested and his quote was:

"Like many Montanans, I'm hoping for more snow, looking forward to Christmas with our family, and getting in some hunting."

He said we should get back in touch after the holidays. Do you expect Greg Gianforte to throw his hat into the ring?

RS: If people want him to run, I suspect he probably would. He's definitely shown an interest in politics, and in some ways he is the most obvious candidate. Most Montanans aren't going to recognize any of these other potential candidates. But he does have the name recognition ...

ES: He's certainly spent a lot of money on television ads during the governors race.

RS: Right, so he definitely has that going for him. I think there are a couple of ways of looking at it. If you're a Republican, the glass-half-full take on Gianforte is that he does have this name recognition. He came close to knocking off an incumbent governor, which is very hard to do. This is maybe a guy who deserves another shot. On the other hand, the glass-half-empty view from Republicans is that it's kind of like what we were talking about with Juneau. This guy just lost, and it's maybe even more striking in Gianforte's case, because this year was an epic Republican landslide; swept over the entire country, and was Gianforte's defeat that cost Montana Republicans a clean sweep of the statewide races. So you can say sure, maybe it's hard to beat a solid incumbent like Bullock, but on the other hand, if you can't win as a Republican in Montana in 2016, maybe there's a problem with the candidate. And so I think that's what Republicans will have to grapple with if Gianforte does decide to get in.

One thing to keep in mind here though Eric, is that Gianforte may have an ace up his sleeve in the form of Steve Daines. Daines at this point is the state's senior Republican figure in the party; U.S. Senator of course. He's very close with Gianforte. They're both from Bozeman, they worked together for all those years and if Daines decides to get behind Gianforte, that could be a big factor especially given this process that we talked about at the beginning. This isn't a primary, it's going to be a small group of elite party leaders picking the nominee. So in that kind of a situation, Daines' endorsement and work behind the scenes could be very influential.

EW: Rob Saldin is a professor of political science at the University of Montana. We should mention that you wrote an article for the Washington Post about Ryan Zinke's appointment. Thanks for joining us.

RS: Thanks Eric.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information
Related Content