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A squeaker, a blowout and troubling turnout numbers for Dems

Ryan Zinke had a surprising close call on Tuesday, narrowly defeating Al Olszewski in the Republican primary for Montana's western U.S. House seat. Monica Tranel's path to that seat's general election concluded with an unexpected easy win over Cora Neumann. What will the upcoming Zinke v. Tranel race look like? Will Montana Democrats turn out in November?

Campaign Beat is Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program. It's hosted by Sally Mauk and features Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels and Rob Saldin of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center and Political Science Department.

Sally Mauk Rob, we and many others thought there would be a close race in Montana's congressional primary, but we thought it would be in the western district Democratic primary. It turns out the western district Republican primary was the squeaker, with Ryan Zinke eking out a victory over Al Olszewski. I'm not sure anyone, least of all Zinke, thought it would be that close.

Rob Saldin Yeah, that was a big surprise, Sally. On Zinke's expectations, though, there was one thing that caught my eye, you know. Just a few days before the primary, there was a little bit of a tell that he was maybe a little nervous because he put up a last-minute TV ad and sent out a last-minute mailer, both of which attacked Olszewski directly, calling him dishonest, saying he exaggerated his military record. And that struck me as interesting just because for the entire primary season prior to that, Zinke basically ignored Olszewski and the other candidates and seemingly just assumed that he was going to naturally coast to the general election and for that matter, coast through that as well. It wasn't crazy to think that he would, because he did, after all, have all the advantages. You know, prior service in Congress, name recognition, the Trump endorsement, massive fundraising advantage and so forth. Now, Dr. Al, who gave him this close run, certainly does have his own base of support in the Flathead, and he'd run in the 2018 U.S. Senate primary, losing Rosendale in the 2020 primary for governor, losing to Gianforte. So he's not exactly an unknown candidate. But still, the narrowness of this victory has to have Zinke's campaign wondering what happened. And, you know, it's probably not just one thing. He's got quite a bit of baggage at this point.

For one thing, he was basically forced to resign as interior secretary, being essentially deemed too unethical by the standards of the Trump administration. And then there are some Republicans who apparently consider him to be not conservative enough. And then there's the whole California residency matter, and there are other things of this sort. So one has to wonder, based on the results this week, whether after all of this, there is now a perception out there that's sticking, at least to some degree, that Zinke is a grifter, that he plays fast and loose, he cuts corners, thinks the rules don't apply to him, and that this is taking hold to, at least, again, some degree in the electorate, even in the Republican electorate.

Sally Mauk Well, Holly, the surprise in the western district Democratic primary wasn't who won, but the margin of victory. Monica Tranel easily beat Cora Neumann, who had raised the most money in that race.

Holly Michels Yeah, I think, you know, before the election we weren't quite sure who was going to come out on top here. And we were pointing, like you just said, to those finance numbers, showing that Neumann was up. But Tranel did out-raise her in that last reporting period, which maybe could have indicated she was gaining momentum. We saw Tranel with a pretty darn decisive victory. She got 65% of the vote compared to Neumann's 27% and 8% for Tom Winter. I think election night I was watching results come in and Gallatin County came in with a pretty big margin for Tranel, and that's Cora Neumann's home turf. So I think once we saw that, this race looked like it was pretty much over.

It's hard without public polling and we don't really have exit polls or anything like that. So it's kind of all speculation here about why Tranel had such a big margin. But people have talked to her, pointing to a couple of things that might explain this outcome. One is, even though Tranel raised a bit less than Neumann over the race, she spent a lot of that money on advertising, matching Neumann with what was up on television. And even though a lot of the times their two ads felt pretty similar, it's just clear Tranel's were hitting voters a little bit differently. There was one ad not from the campaigns, but from a super PAC, that was supporting Tranel that did feel a lot different than the others, and that one went after Neumann for the time she spent out of state. And I think people I talked to after the election think that that's a message that probably worked pretty well supporting Tranel. It was also probably pretty successful, and why Olszewski came so close to almost picking off Ryan Zinke. And Tranel does have a pretty solid background to be making these carpetbagger claims against Zinke in the general election.

And [what] I think the primary did a pretty good job of articulating was she thought she was the strongest option to run against him. And that includes stuff like she's pointed to her legal work against corporations and looking at, you know, her work against corruption. She's tying that to it.

Rob was talking about with these investigations that Zinke's been under for his time in the Trump administration. Tranel also brought up Zinke being a consultant who's worked with oil companies. That's something that probably was a pretty popular message with Democratic primary voters who were looking for someone with a pretty well articulated attack against Zinke. The last thing to mention is Tranel had a pretty strong ground game. It was kind of all over this district in the primary and then spent time showing up in places, pretty conservative parts of Montana like Corvallis. She was at the Memorial Day parade there. And that's a place where there's not a lot of Democratic voters, but being there means a lot to those voters. So I think that probably played a role as well.

Sally Mauk And then there was the snake ad.

Holly Michels There was the snake ad.

Sally Mauk Rob, should Tranel's campaign take any kind of encouragement from Zinke's close primary race? I mean, it's doubtful anyone who voted for Al Olszewski will vote for Tranel in the general election, but maybe they won't vote at all. And that would hurt Zinke, of course.

Rob Saldin Well, right. I mean, I think Tranel has to be thrilled, not only, as Holly explained, did she win her own primary with surprising ease, but Zinke sure doesn't look as intimidating as he did Tuesday afternoon, as we discussed a minute ago, Sally, I mean, Zinke's got a lot of negatives. He offers Democrats something of a target-rich environment, you might say. He underperformed on Tuesday. Now, certainly, most of those Republican voters who went with someone else this week will come home in November and support Zinke. But maybe not all of them. One could imagine, for instance, that a lot of supporters of Matt Jette, one of the other GOP candidates who took 6% of the vote, that, you know, a bunch of them could be up for grabs. And as you suggest, Sally, it's very hard to imagine that many of Dr. Al's supporters would be casting ballots for Tranel, but then again, maybe a slice of them decide to stay home.

Sally Mauk Well, Tranel is already honing her message for the general election. And here's what she said on election night.

Monica Tranel "As a state, this new district gives us hope because it gives us a choice between purchased politicians and someone who has a proven track record of standing up to corporate greed. And I've done that, and will do that."

Sally Mauk And I expect, Rob, that we're going to hear the phrase "purchased politicians" quite a bit in the next few months.

Rob Saldin For sure. I do think, though, coming out of this primary, a big win for Tranel, a squeaker for Zinke — it's important to not forget the advantages that Ryan Zinke still has. I rattled off a bunch of them earlier, but basically, while he's not technically the incumbent, he has all of the advantages of one. And then on top of that, you think about the national dynamics that are at play right now, very favorable for Republicans. Everything from the midterm dynamic that favors the party not controlling the White House to inflation and other concerns about the economy, right track/wrong track polling numbers, Biden's approval rating and so forth. Maybe the one final thing worth mentioning here that I was keeping an eye on on Tuesday and that Democrats I would think, have to be a little worried about, is just the raw vote totals in each of the parties' primaries. Now, the primary electorate is going to be a lot different than what we'll see in the general and Tranel did get about a thousand more votes than Zinke. But if you add up all of the votes for the Republican candidates and all of the votes for the Democratic candidates, there were a lot more on the GOP side of the ledger.

Sally Mauk Well, Holly, as Rob just pointed out, voter turnout was very much in favor of Republicans in the primary. And that's going to be a big, big worry for Democrats heading into the general election.

Holly Michels So, I do think, Sally, it is something you can read into, how many people voted in the Democratic versus Republican ballots on this election. But I'd be a bit cautious because there are things we talked a little bit earlier that could be crossover voters or just what might draw somebody to vote one way in a primary, but differently in the general. But it is, I think, pretty interesting. And I think if you're a Democrat, it's not the best thing you've ever seen.

The western House race, the one I was following most closely, looks like about a 60-40 split, like you're saying, favoring Republicans. And that's in the district that was drawn to be more competitive. If you look back historically — did a little bit of this over the last couple of days — in elections where Democrats did better statewide, that breakdown of ballots cast by party in the primary did look a lot better for Democrats. Back in 2008, you'd actually see some Democrats getting more ballots than Republicans in the primary. And that's not to say that's not overcome-able. In the 2016 governor race, there were more Republican ballots cast, by, I think, about 23,000 in the primary than Democrats. And, you know, we did see Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock come out on top there, though, in just the comparison of Bullock and his opponent in that race. Now, Gov. Greg Gianforte, they were pretty darn close in primary counts.

I think something I'm really curious about is what turnout looks like. It was pretty on par in this primary compared to what we've seen before. It's a little bit down from 2018, but that was a really major — we had a huge Senate race on the ballot that year, a little bit up from 2014, the last midterm before that. I think a lot of people were expecting maybe higher turnout, especially with this western district drawing a lot of interest. And it really didn't look too much different from what we've seen before there. It doesn't look like interest was higher in the west compared to the east or anything like that. But that could change in the general election, and maybe that's something Democrats are hoping just having more people vote might help them out.

Sally Mauk Lastly, Rob, Matt Rosendale easily won his primary in the eastern district and he will face independent Gary Buchanan and Democrat Penny Ronning. They have a mountain to climb to make that race competitive.

Rob Saldin Right. You know, I think you take all of Zinke's advantages that we discussed earlier and they all apply for Rosendale. And then on top of that, he's just in a very Republican-friendly district. He's got his own liabilities, too, although they're of a different type than Zinke's. With Rosendale, it's not so much a string of scandals and ethical questions, but more a matter of some of the votes he's cast and the things he's said that at least some people would consider to be pretty extreme. So there's material to work with there. But the district's partisan makeup and the national dynamics of this cycle just make it awfully tough. And as we've discussed more than once on this show, Sally, the presence of both a Democratic candidate and a prominent independent risks splitting the anti-Rosendale vote.

Sally Mauk And then, of course, outside of Billings, who has heard of Penny Ronning? I imagine a lot of people were googling her name after the primary.

Rob Saldin Right. Not a well-known candidate.

Sally Mauk Well, except for the candidates, a lot of folks will take a break from politics over the summer, and Campaign Beat will as well. We'll resume our analysis in September when the general election gets into full swing. And Holly and Rob, in the meantime, please have a great summer and I'll talk to you again in the fall.

Rob Saldin Thanks, Sally.

Holly Michels Thanks, Sally.

Campaign Beat is Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program. It's hosted by Sally Mauk and features Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels and Rob Saldin of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center and Political Science Department.

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Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
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