Ryan Zinke, former Interior secretary and past Montana congressman, has emerged the winner of a tight Republican primary for Montana’s new western congressional seat.
Zinke held a 1,608-vote lead districtwide over former state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell following a hand-count in Lincoln County that did not wrap up until late Thursday afternoon. That put Zinke at 42% to Olszewski's 40% in unofficial totals.
Lincoln County was the last in the district to report results.
The five-way primary also featured Kalispell church leader Mary Todd with 10%, Missoula school teacher Matt Jette with 6% and Whitefish home builder Mitch Heuer with 2%.
Zinke will face Democrat Monica Tranel and Libertarian John Lamb in November’s general election.
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For the first time in 30 years, Montana will send two representatives to Congress after gaining an additional seat in reapportionment. In the new western congressional district, Zinke was widely considered the favorite with high name recognition, a significant fundraising lead and the backing of prominent Republicans including former President Donald Trump.
“Thank you western Montana for your confidence that America can be fixed and for ignoring the political BS," Zinke said in a statement emailed out by his campaign Wednesday evening. “ ... We have a great team and dedicated volunteers who believe in American values. I look forward to working with (Republican) Congressman (Matt) Rosendale on solving the hard issues that face America and the great state of Montana. One state. Two U.S. representatives, one fight for freedom.”
In a statement Wednesday evening, Olszewski said he conceded the race to Zinke in a phone call.
“I’m honored by the over 30,000 voters who supported me in this election. We started as big underdog and ran a race based on the conservative principles of our Republican Party," Olszewski said. "However it’s clear that we will not be victorious in this race. This evening I called Mr. Zinke to concede the race. I want to thank all my supporters and team for their help. Together we accomplished so much and I want to thank my family who was with me throughout it all.”
Once the polls closed Tuesday and numbers started posting, Zinke and Olszewski were running largely neck-and-neck. Zinke received stronger support in populous counties such as Missoula and Gallatin, and also won Mineral, Glacier, Pondera, Ravalli, Granite, Madison, Deer Lodge and Silver Bow in unofficial results. Olszewski meanwhile easily won the other populous county, Flathead, which both candidates call home, and other northwestern counties such as Lake and Sanders. He also won Beaverhead County by 7 points.
By Wednesday, Zinke held a slim 1,200-vote advantage out of more than 80,000 votes cast as all eyes turned to Lincoln County. A quarter-inch error by the printer supplying absentee ballots caused them to be incompatible with tabulation machines. Officials there elected to count votes by hand.
Zinke ended up winning Lincoln County with 46% of the vote there to Olszewski's 37%.
Zinke cited concern over the divide in the country in his decision to run and touted his experience with energy and public lands both in Congress and in the Trump administration. He has also spoken out about the need to address Montana’s affordable housing crisis and called for changes at the U.S.-Mexico border to reduce immigrants entering the country illegally.
Olszewski had run twice statewide, losing in GOP primaries for governor and U.S. Senate, and aligned himself with the conservative wing of the Republican Party in this run for the U.S. House. He was an outspoken Zinke critic, attacking the former congressman on multiple issues from policy to the amount of time he spends out of state. Opponents have focused on Zinke’s departure from the Trump administration, resigning after two years amid multiple ethics investigations.
Zinke has pushed back on the attacks, running a late ad affirming his Montana residency — his wife owns property in California she identifies as her primary residence while the couple own a home and other properties in Whitefish.
Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.