Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

House candidates talk abortion and ethics. Should Zinke be worried about Lamb?

The western district House candidates drew clear distinctions over abortion in this week's forum in Butte. Tranel hammed Zinke over ethics investigations. Could the Libertarian candidate John Lamb hurt Zinke at the polls?

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 Holly, the three candidates for the western district congressional seat, Republican Ryan Zinke and Democrat Monica Tranel and Libertarian John Lamb had their second debate this week in Butte, sponsored by public radio and Lee Newspapers. And there were some fireworks right off the bat over debate rules.

Holly Michels Yeah. So for anybody watching the live stream or listening to the radio broadcast last night, there was a bit of delay at the start. What happened is there is a dispute between the Tranel and Zinke campaign and with forum organizers about if candidates were allowed to have notes on the stage. The use of notes, or if they're not allowed, is something that gets settled between the candidates and forum organizers before things start. Sometimes they're allowed, sometimes they're not. It all depends on the specific event. What happened in this case for this forum — so there was email communication between the Tranel campaign in which the Tranel campaign asked if notes were allowed. Organizers said there wasn't an issue with having notes. Zinke's campaign was not a part of that email thread. Zinke's campaign hadn't brought up the issue of if notes were allowed or not in pre-forum communications, and it wasn't communicated to them directly that notes were not allowed. But that's what they were operating under the assumption of when the forum was about to start. Eventually, everyone agreed to go forward as they prepared for. Zinke didn't have a big notepad or collection of notes on the stage with him. Tranel had a binder of them. Things got started, things went smoothly from there, but it was a little bit of delay at the start of the event.

Sally Mauk Rob, Holly's first question to the candidates was about how they would promote civility, and here's how Zinke and Tranel responded.

"People are angry, and I understand that. And Monica doesn't have anything to run on other than assault my integrity," Zinke said.

Tranel said, "Everything in my ads is truth and legal, and I stand on them. There are two reports, they are printed out, there are copies available for everybody here tonight — Inspector general reports, finding Ryan Zinke, the lies that he told to investigators and to cover up his corruption. Read it for yourselves. Don't take his word for it. Don't take mine. Ryan is lying again. It's what he does best."

Sally Mauk So much for civility, Rob.

Rob Saldin Yeah, that went right out the window. But look, these candidates have the points that they want to make and they want to draw distinctions. And talking about civility is not part of the strategy of either campaign. On the substance of that exchange, I do think Tranel really has the upper hand when it comes to talking about Zinke, these scandals. He kind of tried to explain some of that stuff away. I'm not sure it worked very well. Maybe it's about the best he can do. But any time they're focused on Zinke, he and his scandals, you know, that works really well for Monica Tranel. I think one other issues that was also there at the beginning of the debate that I actually thought in some ways surprisingly worked a little better for Zinke was their exchange about abortion.

Sally Mauk That's the next exchange we're going to hear. And this is what they both had to say about abortion.

"Banning it is too harsh, but Monica's position of open-ended all the way up to birth is barbaric," Zinke said.

"Don't tell me you're pro-life when you're voting against education, you're voting against money, you're voting against children, you're voting against families. That's not pro-life," Tranel said.


Sally Mauk Holly, Tranel is clearly trying to get the edge on the abortion issue, and she's framing it as privacy and freedom.

Holly Michels This was a pretty interesting exchange during the forum. In some ways, their answers were similar to what we heard in a Missoula forum earlier this summer. We heard Tranel saying she supports a person's right to decide if, when and how they become a parent. You heard Zinke, again, say he doesn't support a total abortion ban because there are situations, complications of a pregnant person's life being at risk, cases of rape or incest.

But where it was different was, like you said, Sally, Tranel really got into more about the issues of privacy. In Montana especially, and this is more at a state level, but our state Constitution has these special privacy provisions that actually ensure, our state Supreme Court has previously held, the right to access an abortion in Montana. And privacy is just, it's a big issue in Montana. It's something that comes up a lot. We hear a lot during election season. And we heard Tranel focus on that in this forum again, tying it even to things like firearms, saying if the government can track people who are seeking abortions through things on people's cell phones, that would track their personal health and maybe track where you are location wise as well. The government could do the same thing for something like gun sales. So I think that was an interesting take we saw last night.

She did bring up that Butte was where she gave birth to her first child. So that was something specific to that event. I think we also heard in the forum both of them really take dings at each other's stances. Zinke saying Tranel would support abortion up until the moment of birth, which is something doctors in Montana say is not done as an elective procedure. That happens in the case of something going really tragically wrong at the end of a pregnancy. And then on Tranel side, we've heard her say Zinke, even though he said in his own views that he wouldn't support a full ban, he's never disavowed the GOP platform that does call for a full ban. And she tries to tell voters he would be another Republican in Congress who would be taking votes with the Republican Party when this comes up. So it's a pretty interesting part of the forum, and I think we're going to keep hearing about it until Election Day.

Rob Saldin Well, Holly, I thought you made a good point there about how Tranel responded to Zinke's characterization of her position. You know, she didn't really take that on directly. He's calling her barbaric. And she had two opportunities to push back on that characterization, but chose not to. I think Zinke, he can't do much better than that if he's trying to neutralize an issue that has become tough for Republicans on a political level since that Dobbs decision came down.

Sally Mauk Rob, Zinke and Tranel also had very different tones in their closing statements. Here's what they said.

"You want $10 a gallon gasoline? Vote for Monica," Zinke said. "My vision is I love this country. I respect this country. I want our schools to teach the right things. Puberty blockers, gender transformations, Boys playing girls sports. No.

Tranel said, "People are yearning for connection, for community. To work together to face the immense challenges we have. And we can do that because we're Americans."

Sally Mauk Rob, Zinke said the candidates have very different visions.

Rob Saldin Well, they do. And you get a flavor for that right there in those closing statements. I did kind of get the sense that Zinke had a list of items that he wanted to get to and then kind of realized that the debate was over and tried to throw a bunch of them in there to his final closing statement. You know, another one he hit on was immigration and open borders. So that felt a little jumbled there at the end from Zinke, but you do get a flavor for where these two candidates are coming from.

Sally Mauk And Rob, the Libertarian, John Lamb, was consistent throughout the debate. And his main message is the best government is the least government.

Rob Saldin Yeah, right, Sally. Classic Libertarian message. I'm not sure his abortion position quite is consistent with that, but certainly on other aspects it is. You know, the thing I found interesting is that on two occasions, Zinke really went right after Lamb. He directly attacked Lamb, first on the military, and then again in that closing statement on Lamb's open borders position, as Zinke characterizes that. And that suggests to me that Zinke is concerned that Lamb could eat into his support. Of course, there's some precedent for this. Probably most notably, back in 2012, the Libertarian candidate in the U.S. Senate election got 6.5% of the vote in an election that Jon Tester won by less than 4% over Denny Rehberg. So, under the right conditions, these Libertarian candidates can have an effect on the outcome. And Zinke's underwhelming performance in his primary does suggest that there are quite a few Republicans and conservatives out there who aren't necessarily big fans of his. So, you know, what do these people do? Well, Zinke clearly wants to make sure that they come home to him, and that Lamb doesn't seem like a viable option. So that's perhaps a little bit of a sleeper dynamic that's worth keeping an eye on if this election ends up being close.

Sally Mauk And Tranel, I think, probably agrees with Zinke's assessment that she benefits from Lamb's candidacy. She's certainly pushing to have Lamb included in all the debates that have happened and are going to happen.

Holly, Zinke has some new TV ads going after Tranel's ethics, trying to deflect, I think, her criticism of his ethics. It's sort of the old, the best defense is a good offense.

Holly Michels Zinke was actually asked during the forum about why he uses that rhetoric and why this is coming up in these ads now in the campaign. He said it was reflective of what he thinks is anger around the country. Then he transitioned to say that what he thinks is all Tranel has to run on is assaults on his integrity. Like we've talked about before, and this was even in the primary, Zinke does have to defend himself against these investigations into him. He focuses on smaller things when he's talking about these investigations, saying that he was looked at over, he said in the forum, you know, his socks or his dog, but he doesn't really talk about these larger parts of these investigations that centered on things like his actions around a real estate project in Whitefish or a casino proposal in Connecticut. You know, this is something where campaigns are portraying it in their own way and really kind of threading the needle in how they talk about it. You know, Zinke can say prosecutors have declined to pursue criminal charges against him, but Tranel can turn around and say, like we heard in the forum, internal ethics watchdog report shows Zinke did intend to mislead investigators and violated his duty of candor. We heard Tranel flat out say during the forum that Zinke was lying. So, these investigations have hung around for years now. Like I said, during the primary they came up in Zinke's primary opponent — who I think came a lot closer to winning that race than most people expected — brought it up, too. So, there's obviously continued belief that this can have an effect on the outcome of the race. So I think we're going to see it more. It's probably going to come up in upcoming forums between the candidates, and pretty major part of this race.

Sally Mauk Rob, Tranel has a new TV ad that doesn't even mention Zinke. Here's that ad.

[Tranel] "NorthWestern's lobbyists wrote a special law letting them raise our rates to pay for their bad business decisions. They made terrible investments, spending hundreds of millions on power plants. That didn't work. I'm Monica Tranel. I fought NorthWestern all the way to the Supreme Court to stop the rate hikes, and won. We saved Montanans $10 million and got the law changed so it doesn't happen again. I approve this message. In Congress, I will keep fighting big corporations to save you money."

Sally Mauk Rob, this ad comes out just as the Public Service Commission has approved a temporary rate hike for NorthWestern.

Rob Saldin Right. Pretty good timing. You know, I think the larger thing that's going on here is that Tranel is trying to to localize this campaign and raise the salience of Montana-specific issues. You saw it in the debate with housing. You see it here in this ad with NorthWestern Energy. Zinke, meanwhile, wants voters to be thinking about national issues like inflation and how Tranel is purportedly in lockstep with Nancy Pelosi's agenda and is soft on crime and whatnot. Well, you know, Zinke will be in good shape if he can make this election a question of whether voters want a Democratic foot soldier in Pelosi and Biden's Washington army, or whether they want the Republican alternative to that. Tranel needs this to be about Montana issues and the character and integrity of the two main candidates. And this NorthWestern Energy ad, I think, is a pretty effective example of Tranel trying to keep that focus on local Montana issues. It presents her as a champion of everyday Montanans who are at risk of being taken advantage of by corporate interests. And of course, there is a long history of this kind of thing in Montana, so, presumably that will resonate on some level.

Sally Mauk Holly and Rob, we will talk next week.

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.

Stay Connected
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.
University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
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