KALISPELL - Five Republicans will be on the primary ballot in Montana’s western congressional district, and four of them are based in the Flathead.
Flathead County is one of the main centers of Republican voters in the 1st Congressional District, which also includes areas like Missoula, Ravalli County, Butte, and Bozeman.
Much of the attention in the primary has been on Ryan Zinke. The former Montana congressman – elected twice to the House before becoming U.S. Secretary of the Interior under President Donald Trump – is seeking a return to Congress. He says issues like inflation, energy independence and border security are fixable, but it will take leadership to do it.
“The Republicans have to learn how to lead together,” Zinke said. “We have to make sure that we financially put this country back on good footing. These are hard, hard decisions that have to be made – but also, we have to do it, I think, as red, white and blue. There’s too much anger.”
Zinke has raised by far the most money in the Republican race, and he’s pointing to strong ratings from the National Rifle Association and right-to-life groups. He can also tout a strong endorsement from former President Donald Trump. This week, Trump participated in a brief tele-rally – a phone call supporters could listen in to – on Zinke’s behalf. Trump praised Zinke’s work on expanding energy production, increasing access to public lands and constructing a border wall. He also suggested he plans to make an appearance in Montana soon.
“Ryan has my complete and total endorsement,” Trump said. “With his help and everybody’s help, this country will be turned around.”
During the campaign, Zinke’s opponents have raised questions about his residency in Montana. Late last week, an article in Politico reported Zinke’s wife Lola had claimed a tax deduction on a home in Santa Barbara, California, essentially declaring it as her primary residence.
Zinke says his wife owns the California property in her own right after inheriting it from her family, and that he’s supportive of her decision to keep it and spend time there. He says, while he does go to that property, his own primary residence remains in Whitefish, at what had previously been his grandmother’s home. Zinke says he had planned to convert it into a bed and breakfast, called the Snowfrog Inn, but put those plans aside when he became Interior Secretary.
One rival who hasn’t hesitated to bring up the residency issue is Al Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon and former state senator from Kalispell. In a TV ad, Olszewski said Zinke “lives in California” – a characterization Zinke took issue with.
Olszewski has been sharply critical of Zinke, questioning his conservative credentials on a variety of issues, often citing votes from his time in the Montana Legislature or in Congress. For example, he’s pointed to Zinke’s vote against a 2011 bill tightening voter ID requirements, and to his 2009 opposition to a “personhood amendment” for the state constitution.
“I respect that President Trump has given an endorsement to Ryan Zinke, but the truth is that I will always outhustle Ryan Zinke when it comes to our America First policies,” he said. “What we need to do is look no further than our voting records.”
Olszewski, who ran in Republican primaries for U.S. Senate in 2018 and governor in 2020, calls himself a “grassroots, limited-government” conservative. He says he’s been around the state working on issues like property rights, water rights and health care, and that he’s the best choice to advance conservative policies.
Mary Todd, of Kalispell, says her decision to join the congressional race was sparked by a personal experience. In 2012, her son Shane was found dead after leaving his job as an engineer with a firm in Singapore. Local authorities ruled it a suicide, but Todd believes he was murdered. She says he had 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 says she asked for a congressional investigation into her son’s death, and she believes that didn’t happen because of Huawei and the Chinese government’s influence in Washington.
Todd said she appreciated Trump raising concerns about China, but felt his administration did not go far enough. On other issues, Todd says she favors limited government, tighter border security, and she opposes the teaching of critical race theory. She says she was arrested in the 1980s for praying outside an abortion clinic as a protest.
“I would like to represent this state the best that I can for all the constituents,” she said. “As a constituent that wasn’t listened to, I know what it is, so I will listen to the people of Montana, I will serve them and I will respond to them.”
Mitch Heuer, who lives near Whitefish, runs several businesses, including a factory homebuilding operation and an engineering firm. He argues there isn’t enough innovation coming out of Congress, and there needs to be large-scale change to bring in more new ideas. He says that can’t happen if voters continue to elect representatives from the “Establishment.”
Heuer advocates for a “Convention of States” under Article V of the U.S. Constitution, to propose a constitutional amendment implementing strict term limits for Congress and other federal positions.
“We need to have a lot of fresh minds and bodies and servants in Congress,” he said. “Otherwise, we’re just going to end up settling for scraps like we have been.”
Heuer says he’s also concerned about border security, reducing the U.S.’s economic reliance on China, increasing housing production and improving national education.
The only Republican candidate from outside the Flathead is Matt Jette, a government teacher and professor from Missoula. He’s also taking a different tone than his opponents, running as a moderate.
Jette says he lived in Montana until 2000, then returned last year specifically to run against Zinke. He previously made several political runs in Arizona – as a Republican, Democrat and independent. He’s encouraging people who don’t usually vote in Republican primaries to support him, as an alternative to a “Trump Republican.”
“Our message has been trying to say, ‘Okay, we need you to wake up a little bit,’” said Jette. “If you don’t go out and vote, if you don’t go out and participate, then it’s going to be politics as the same, and we’re going to have a Zinke or somebody else, and you’re going to be here two years, four years, six years from now asking the exact same questions.”
Jette says the country can do better in addressing the gaps caused by poverty, educational inequality and access to health care.
MTN previously took a look at the candidates competing for the Democratic nomination in the 1st District. In addition, John Lamb, a Libertarian candidate, will appear on the general election ballot in November.