Trump-Backed Candidate Leads Challenger in Montana GOP Primary
Trump-Backed Candidate Leads Challenger in Montana GOP Primary

By Allan Stein

MISSOULA, Mont.—Five percentage points separate former U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his closest Republican rival, former Montana Sen. Al Olszewski in a hotly contested race for the Republican congressional nomination in Montana’s District 1 primary оn June 7.

With 28 percent of the votes reported at 11:54 p.m. ЕТ, Zinke led with about 43 percent of the vote. Olszewski trailed with 38 percent. These results reflect about 60 percent of counted ballots after the polls closed at 8 p.m.

On the Democratic side, Missoula attorney Monica Tranel is the projected winner with 66.4 percent of the vote, against Cora Neumann, a public health and lands advocate, with 26.7 percent.

In Montana’s geographically more extensive District 2, incumbent U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) is the projected winner by an overwhelming margin with 72.4 percent over his closest rival, Billings pharmacist Kyle Austin, with 13.5 percent.

In District 2, Billings councilwoman Penny Ronning runs unopposed with 60.6 percent of the vote. However, the late Montana State Sen. Mark Sweeney (D), who died May 4, is still on the ballot, with 21.5 percent.

The statewide primary featured 47 state legislative races, including the two U.S. congressional races in two new districts the Montana Districting and Apportionment Committee approved in November based on 2020 census data. Each legislative district has about 700,000 residents.

Under the new configuration, Rosendale no longer represents the state as a whole, as he has done since his election in 2020.

Rosendale was the projected frontrunner in heavily Republican District 2, outstripping his party rivals in campaign financing—$2.5 million—name recognition and the endorsement of the Montana Republican Party.

In left-leaning District 1, which includes Missoula, Trump-backed Zinke ran on a solidly conservative platform. However, he faced investigations of alleged ethics violations that prompted his resignation as Trump’s Interior Secretary in 2018.

Zinke also faced criticism for allegedly using his position to undermine Montana’s environmental protections.
The former Navy SEAL also came under fire on social media, with some opponents questioning his military service in Iraq.

Zinke ran a strong campaign targeting inflation under the Biden administration and the crisis at the southern border with Mexico. He also promised strong support for veterans and improving access to public lands, hunting and fishing to woo those voters.

U.S. Air Force veteran Al Olszewski hoped to unseat Zinke, if not with Trump’s backing, then on his staunch support of the 2nd Amendment amidst the ongoing assault on gun ownership by Democrats.

He also vowed support for law enforcement in a time of police defunding and better management of Montana’s federal lands.

Mitch Heuer ran his campaign on a foreign policy position of walking tall, speaking softly, and carrying a big stick with Russia.”

Opposed to the “liberal-socialist agenda,” Heurer promised to use his business to develop ways to prevent the wave of mass shootings plaguing the nation.

Zinke’s other opponents included conservative Pastor Mary Todd, and Matt Jette.

Ballots were cast in-person and by mail-in absentee in the primary. Montana currently has about 741,000 registered voters out of just over 1 million. The state is the nation’s 48th most populous, covering a land mass of 145,552 square miles.

In Missoula, the city elections division issued 60,042 ballots, and 24,166 votes (30 percent) had been returned, according to an election official.

All primary winners will advance to the general election on Nov. 8.

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