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Three candidates on the ballot for Montana's western congressional district

Posted at 6:33 PM, Mar 15, 2024

HELENA — Unlike the crowded fields of candidates running for U.S. House in Montana’s eastern congressional district, the primaries in the western district are much quieter. Voters will see some of the same names on the ballot that they did in 2022 – and the general election matchup could be a rematch.

Ryan Zinke

U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Republican, is seeking to be elected to the House for the fourth time. He represented the entire state in Congress from 2015 to 2017, before becoming U.S. Secretary of the Interior under former President Donald Trump. In 2022, he successfully ran in the newly created 1st Congressional District – which covers western Montana, including Kalispell, Missoula, Butte and Bozeman.

Zinke highlights his legislative seniority and his position on the House Appropriations Committee, a powerful committee with a large role in crafting the federal budget. He says there’s a lot of work for Congress to do, but he believes there’s a limit to what will get done when Republicans and Democrats have split control of the government. He wants to see a Republican Congress work with Trump if he’s reelected, to address issues like border security and crime.

“A lot of problems that usually are isolated somewhere else in the states are coming home to roost here,” Zinke said. “So we face a lot of challenges. I'm an optimist. I think we can actually address them with leadership and solve them.”

Monica Tranel

The lone Democratic challenger this year is Missoula attorney Monica Tranel, who also won the party’s nomination in 2022. She lost to Zinke by about three percentage points – just under 8,000 votes. Tranel says having a contested primary last time left her with no money and less time to get her message out in the general election. She says, this time around, with the familiarity she’s built and more resources to get out the vote, she’s optimistic about her chances.

Tranel is a former Olympic rower who later went into law, serving as staff attorney for the Montana Public Service Commission and Montana Consumer Counsel before going into private practice. She says people in the western district have been worried about issues like health care, housing and the overall cost of living in Montana – and she believes her message will appeal to the state’s “purple DNA.”

“I'm talking to lots and lots of people across the district, and what I'm hearing are people are saying, ‘I'm interested in the person. What are you going to do for me? How are you going to work for Montana?’” said Tranel. “And I will deliver on that as I have done my entire career.”

Mary Todd

One candidate who hopes to break up a rematch is Mary Todd, a business owner and pastor from Kalispell. She ran against Zinke in the Republican primary in 2022, picking up about 10% of the vote, and she’s challenging him again this year.

In 2022, Todd said she joined the congressional race because of her son’s death, which was ruled a suicide, but which she believes was a murder. Todd says her son told his family he feared for his life, due to his suspicions about his employer illegally transferring sensitive technology to the Chinese communications giant Huawei.

Todd said she wanted Zinke to do more to expose what she sees as the Chinese government’s influence in Washington, but she said China was not her main issue. She said she was disappointed with Zinke’s position on funding the government, saying she would have pushed for a shutdown to force action on the border.

“I am a mother on a mission, who wants to help save our nation, and so therefore, I decided to take the plunge and run,” Todd said.

There’s already been some conflict in the primary. At the Montana Republican Party’s Winter Kick-Off event last month, after Todd delivered a speech, Zinke’s campaign accused Todd’s husband of getting into an altercation with their staff.

In a statement on social media, Zinke’s campaign said Todd’s husband “was observed destroying/removing Zinke for Congress campaign material,” then yelled at staff, attempted to pull a sign out of a staff member’s hand and finally punched a staff member. They said, in spite of “clear evidence and admitted guilt,” they had decided not to file formal charges.

Todd accused Zinke’s campaign of “slanderous lies.” She told MTN after the incident that she denied her husband had punched anyone, though she was not there when it happened. She said she did apologize for him getting angry, but that he had been upset because Zinke’s campaign had printed a large blow-up of a campaign contribution check she had sent Zinke after the end of the 2022 primary, which she said included their address, banking information and other personal information.

Todd acknowledged she and her husband donated two $1,000 checks to Zinke after he defeated her in 2022, and she told MTN she wasn’t ashamed of that because she was “a team player.”

The Montana Republican Party executive board has already voted to support Zinke’s reelection campaign.

There are also two Libertarian candidates running in the western district: Dennis Hayes of Townsend and Ernie Noble of Bozeman. It’s the only race contested between two Libertarians this year. That means voters in that district – and only that district – will have the option to choose a Libertarian ballot in this year’s primary.