MISSOULA — Sharp exchanges and one candidate grabbing the microphone from the hand of another marked the first time contenders for Montana’s new western U.S. House seat faced off in a forum held in Missoula Monday.
The audience of about 250 at a hotel conference room saw stark differences between Republican Ryan Zinke, former Secretary of the Interior and previous congressman for Montana; Democrat Monica Tranel, a past Olympian and lawyer who worked for the Public Service Commission; and Libertarian John Lamb, a Norris resident who farms and works in construction.
Zinke won a close primary challenge by just over 1,670 votes while Tranel emerged from the Democratic primary with 65% of the vote. Lamb did not have an opponent in the June election. Montana regained its second seat in the U.S. House following population growth tallied in the 2020 census.
While Lamb’s responses to questions mostly focused on his desire for a smaller role of the federal government, Tranel and Zinke sparred through their first public forum together.
The first question submitted from the audience at the forum, hosted by City Club Missoula, went straight to the issue of abortion access following the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade earlier this summer.
Zinke told the crowd he’s “pro-life,” but said the issue for him was complex.
“Life is not perfect, is it?” Zinke said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have any unwanted pregnancy? Really nice if there wasn’t incest, rape, issues of health of the mother or child? Wouldn’t it be nice? But that’s not true, is it? Well, I think a ban is too harsh.”
In the past, Zinke has voted to limit abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for the life of the mother.
Tranel said she would vote for “women’s rights to live life on our own terms and to be able to choose how, when and whether we become parents.”
Not enough has been done, Tranel said, to ensure access to contraceptives. She asked her male opponents if they knew the cost of getting long-term birth control inserted or the price tag for the pill each month.
“We know how to reduce unwanted pregnancies and what have the Republicans done to make that happen? Nothing,” Tranel said.
Though Zinke said he wouldn’t back a full ban without exceptions, Tranel still attacked him over stances Republicans nationally have staked out to ban abortion in all cases. She pointed to recent reporting about how confusion over what’s legal in states that ban abortion with carve-outs for a woman’s health has led to doctors delaying care.
Zinke reiterated he felt a ban was too harsh in the case of rape and incest and said it was a woman’s “right to make sure she saves herself on these medical conditions.”
Lamb told the audience he has 12 children and that abortion is something he’s been against his whole life. Though he said he did not believe the federal government should be involved in people’s lives, his opinion on abortion is “part of my moral and religious background.”
Lamb said when his son, now age 3, was born, doctors determined his wife’s life could be at risk.
“The doctors saved both lives,” Lamb said. “ … We have great medical doctors today that can save lives, both lives. … I don’t believe abortions in this day in time is necessary. We can save both lives.”
On another top-of-mind issue, Tranel heralded the Inflation Reduction Act passed by the Senate with a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris over the weekend, saying the legislation presented openings to address climate change
“This is an incredible time of opportunity and the Inflation Reduction Act contains within it subsidies for putting solar on your rooftop,” Tranel said.
Montana has tremendous natural resources, she continued, saying the state should keep capitalizing on its history of making money off those resources by tapping wind energy to sell to major cities on the West Coast.
Tranel also said she wanted to end fossil fuel subsidies on public land and embrace a transition away from oil and gas through things like putting electric vehicle charging stations across the state.
“We will normalize driving electric cars,” Tranel said.
Zinke said he backed an all-of-the-above energy plan and wanted to make sure energy used here came from the U.S.
“I’ve spent most of my life fighting overseas for someone else’s energy,” Zinke told the crowd. To be able to sustain the manufacturing sector, Zinke said that will require fossil fuels for the next 50 years at least.
He called the Inflation Reduction Act an “oxymoron” and said it would just increase the monthly cost of living for Montana families.
Zinke cited the Wall Street Journal when he told the audience the IRA “will raise costs, if you have private medical insurance, for 220 million Americans.”
While the bill makes changes to eventually cap out-of-pocket drug costs for people covered by Medicare at $2,000 per year, Zinke spokesperson Heather Swift said that the changes there will come at the cost of insurance companies charging more for those covered through their employer or private plans.
While Tranel and Zinke both agreed that treating addiction and addressing mental health issues was part of addressing the problem of drugs in Montana, there was a lot of daylight between the two in their answers to a question about drug trafficking.
Zinke said the problem was with the southern border and that he wanted to see the wall construction started by former Republican President Donald Trump completed where it made sense, along with empowering Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol.
Tranel said fentanyl was made mostly in China and fentanyl is “uniquely a supply side issue.”
Republicans have in recent years suggested that extending the wall along the border or increasing security would cut off the flow of fentanyl to the U.S. A 2022 report commissioned by Congress and several executive-branch agencies found that “Mexico is the principal source” of fentanyl and related substances entering the U.S., but that the ingredients are mostly sourced from China.
In the rebuttal segment, Zinke said Tranel’s stance that the southern border was not part of the problem indicated her “head is buried so deep in the sand, you’ll never see light.”
He then said that Tranel was the legal advisor to Montana 350, a group he characterized as supporting the defunding of law enforcement, “so you can’t have a voice,” Zinke said.
When Zinke’s time expired, the moderator indicated Libertarian John Lamb would speak next, but Tranel took the microphone from Zinke’s hand.
“Let me be unequivocal and clear. I support funding for our law enforcement and for our police,” Tranel said. “I never said anything different.”
Tranel said she does represent 350 Montana, which on its website says it works to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and supports a “100% renewable global energy system using wind, water, and solar.”
“In that capacity, I have reduced your energy costs. … So I represent one client doesn’t mean that I inscribed everything that that client does. I’ve had a lot of clients across the last 25 years and I’m proud of the work that I have done here in Montana,” Tranel said.
The website DemocratFacts, run by the National Republican Congressional Committee, also makes the claim that 350 Montana calls for defunding the police by citing two tweets from the organization’s Twitter account, one of which says there needs to be a “fundamental rethink/restructuring of policing in this country. That almost certainly includes diverting significant parts of their budget to programs that reduce the need for police,” but added that in half of jurisdictions calls were for domestic violence.