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In Montana House race, Ryan Zinke struggles to shake off Trump-era scandals

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Montana is 1 of 6 states adding seats in the U.S. House of Representatives this year due to population growth. More voters there identify as Republicans than Democrats, but the GOP candidate in this race has to live down scandals he faced during the Trump administration in order to win. Here's Montana Public Radio's Shaylee Ragar.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You know him, you've known him, you've trusted him - Commander Ryan Zinke.

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SHAYLEE RAGAR, BYLINE: At a campaign rally outside Bozeman this summer, Ryan Zinke, a retired Navy SEAL, painted himself as a patriotic champion of conservative priorities, like restricting immigration, amping up energy production and cutting taxes.

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RYAN ZINKE: What are we going to do? We're not going to give them the flag. We're not going to give them the Constitution. We're going to fight.

RAGAR: Zinke previously won two races to represent Montana in the U.S. House but left his last term early when former President Donald Trump tapped him to lead the Interior Department in 2017. But he quit Interior early, too, in the wake of 18 ethics investigations. This year, the Interior Department's inspector general, a Trump appointee, released two reports that concluded Zinke lied to investigators on multiple occasions and used his office to advance a project of personal interest in Montana. Zinke brushes the investigations off as politically motivated.

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ZINKE: When you want to get things done in Washington, D.C., and you actually want to push back against the bureaucracy, what we call the swamp, they don't like it. And that's exactly what happened.

RAGAR: But there's evidence that Montana voters might not be buying that. Zinke only won the Republican primary here by a razor-thin margin. Jessi Bennion teaches political science at Montana State University.

JESSI BENNION: The close results of the primary probably made him kick it into higher gear on the campaign trail.

RAGAR: Election analysts with Roll Call initially dubbed this race likely Republican but recently updated it to leans Republican, meaning more competitive. Zinke's Democratic opponent is Monica Tranel, an attorney who's worked on energy and agriculture issues in Montana for more than 20 years.

MONICA TRANEL: I've been here. I've been on the ground, in the trenches with you, by your side, in our communities, showing up.

RAGAR: Montana hasn't elected a Democrat to the U.S. House since 1994. And Zinke has raised more than twice as much for the race. But Tranel is winning endorsements from prominent Republicans, including a former governor, secretary of state and the former chair of the state GOP. And there's a Libertarian candidate in the race who could spell trouble for Zinke, says Montana State's Jessi Bennion.

BENNION: Even if he got a few percentage points, that - in a close race, if Tranel is gaining traction, that can produce upsets. We've seen that.

RAGAR: For Zinke to win, he's going to need Republican voters to stay loyal. Like Gerald Ryder, a retired National Park Service employee who was at the Bozeman rally.

GERALD RYDER: Ryan Zinke, as far as I am concerned, you know, he's a hero for Montana, you know? I mean, he served the country. He did it honorably. There are hundreds of people trying to paint him in a different color. And I don't believe that.

RAGAR: Zinke has Trump's endorsement. The former president won Montana by 16 points in the last election. This race is another test of Trump's political influence across the country.

For NPR News, I'm Shaylee Ragar in Helena, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.
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