The first debate of the general election season signaled a dearth of common ground
By Arren Kimbel-Sannit MONTANA FREE PRESS
The three candidates for Montana’s newly created western congressional district squared off in person for the first time at a candidate forum in Missoula Monday, landing glancing blows and setting the stage for a race that will elevate Montana issues to the national stage and localize national political dynamics as the major parties vie for control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Most of the oxygen at City Club Missoula went to former U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Republican who previously represented Montana’s at-large congressional district from 2015 to 2017, and Missoula-based Democratic energy attorney Monica Tranel. Also in the fray was Libertarian nominee John Lamb.
Tranel, who faces an uphill battle in a Republican-leaning district that includes the Flathead Valley, Missoula, Butte, Bozeman and Hamilton, came out swinging, criticizing Zinke for his infrequent appearances at public forums on the campaign trail thus far and for his history of consulting work for the energy industry after leaving the Interior Department amid a slew of ethics investigations.
Zinke has denied any wrongdoing, and previously referred to the probes as “BS.” He was most recently dinged by ethics officials in President Joe Biden’s Interior Department for his role in negotiations over a commercial project in his hometown of Whitefish.
“So much for civility,” Zinke quipped after Tranel’s opening remarks.
“We’re talking about truth,” Tranel responded.
Zinke, for his part, emphasized his service with Interior in his opening remarks.
“I don’t think there’s a department that affects Montana more than the Department of Interior,” he said.
Neither Lamb, a farmer from outside Bozeman, nor Tranel has previously held elected office. Tranel previously worked as an attorney for the Public Service Commission, and ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the PSC in 2020. In the early 2000s, she ran for the PSC as a Republican and worked on the staff of the Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns. Even in her current campaign as a Democrat, she’s tried to emphasize her bipartisan bona fides, touting an endorsement Monday from former Montana GOP Chair Susan Good Geise.
2022 marks the first time Montanans will elect two representatives to the U.S. House in 30 years, following decades of relegation to a single at-large congressional district. Strong population growth reflected in the 2020 U.S. census led to the restoration of the state’s second district. In the eastern district, Democratic former Billings City Council member Penny Ronning and Independent former government official Gary Buchanan are challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, a Republican.
Montana Public Radio political analyst Sally Mauk moderated the forum and led off with a few inquiries of her own, but most questions came from members of the City Club audience, who probed the candidates about their stances on gun control, abortion, the climate and more.
The first question came from an audience member who asked whether the candidates would respect the right to privacy in the state Constitution — which courts have found protects access to abortion in Montana — and vote against a federal abortion ban, should one come before the next Congress.
Early in his 2009-2013 tenure as a state legislator, Zinke established a reputation as a moderate on abortion issues, but has since hewn further to the right, supporting bills to defund Planned Parenthood and ban abortion after 20 weeks. At Monday’s forum, Zinke said he is anti-abortion but would not support an all-out federal ban. The Montana GOP last month added language to its platform supporting an abortion ban without exceptions for rape or incest.
“I’m pro-life, but life is not perfect, is it?” he said, referencing rape, incest and the possibility of the mother’s death. “I think a ban is too harsh. But I can tell you … I’m sorry, I don’t agree with termination moments before birth. And privacy has its limits.”
Lamb, a father of 12, said he is unequivocally against abortion.
Tranel asserted that Democrats will keep their majority in Congress after the election, and said no such ban would come to a vote. She said she would “vote for women’s rights to be able to live life on our own terms.”
“We know how to reduce unwanted pregnancies,” she said, pointing to underlying issues like the high cost of contraception. “And in the years while my opponent has been in the state Legislature and Congress, he did nothing to help.”
Responding to a question about guns, Tranel expressed support for longer background check waiting periods and so-called red-flag laws that would allow guns to be removed from people determined to present a threat, but said she understands Montana’s gun culture and supports all 27 constitutional amendments, including the second.
“The Second Amendment to me is non-negotiable,” Zinke responded.
On housing, Tranel called for limits on vacation rentals, “looking at corporate entities that own second, third and fourth homes,” and incentivizing development of new homes by streamlining permitting. Zinke agreed that permitting plays a role, but also blamed the state’s housing crisis on inflation.
The candidates also sparred over climate change, a global issue that has special resonance in a drought- and wildfire-stricken West.
The U.S. is falling behind on its obligations to address climate change, Tranel said. She pointed to China’s investment in electric vehicles, calling for the U.S. to do the same, as well as for an end to fossil fuel subsidies on public lands and increased wind generation in Montana. She also attacked Zinke for his ties to the energy industry.
Zinke said he believes in climate change, but that he wants no part of the future energy economy that Tranel laid out. Fossil fuels will remain in the mix for the next 50 years, he said.
It’s better for the U.S. to produce energy under its regulations than cede that role to another country, he said.
“China’s building electric vehicles, sure they are,” he said. “But they’re also building a heck of a lot of coal.”
Lamb, repeating the central theme of his remarks Monday, said the federal government should not be involved in energy policy.
In his closing remarks, Zinke called for bipartisan unity.
“There’s issues that we’re going to agree and disagree on, but we shouldn’t be disagreeable,” he said — a departure from the tone he’s taken in previous campaign speeches, such as his address to the 2022 Montana GOP platform convention last month, where he called Tranel a “liberal environmental attorney that’s now wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat.”
“We’re gonna kick the hell out of her,” he said at the time.
Tranel, meanwhile, said she’s lived and worked by the side of the district’s constituents for 25 years — stopping short of overtly criticizing Zinke for the time he spends at a second home in California. Zinke described himself earlier in the debate as a fifth-generation Montanan.
“Since the primary, I haven’t been anywhere but Montana,” Tranel said.
Lamb’s pitch provided a rare moment of levity during an otherwise tense debate.
“There’s always a third choice,” he said. “A Libertarian choice. So think of me at the ballot.”
Tranel has invited the two other candidates to a total of 18 debates leading up to November’s general election. It’s not known how many of those Zinke will attend. A campaign spokesperson said Monday that Zinke will attend a future candidate forum hosted by Lee Enterprises, which owns several large Montana newspapers, and likely another held by MTN News.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add a reference to Gary Buchanan, an independent candidate for office in the eastern district.