HELENA — After a tight race and a nearly 48-hour wait for the final results, it appears former U.S. Rep. and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has secured the Republican nomination for U.S. House in Montana’s new western congressional district.
The last large pool of uncounted votes – from Lincoln County – were released Thursday afternoon, extending Zinke’s lead over orthopedic surgeon and former state Sen. Al Olszewski to about 1,600 votes. Zinke’s campaign released a statement claiming victory as the results began to come in.
“Thank you Western Montana for your confidence that America can be fixed and for ignoring the political BS,” he said in the statement.
Zinke was generally considered the frontrunner in the 1st Congressional District Republican primary. He had previously represented Montana in the House, had raised by far the most money and boasted the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. However, Olszewski had portrayed himself as the best choice for conservatives.
The Zinke campaign called the result a victory over negative campaigning from Republicans and Democrats.
As the results came in Tuesday night, Zinke took a narrow lead and generally held on to it – though Olszewski briefly pulled ahead after a large report from Flathead County.
Olszewski conceded the race to Zinke Thursday evening. In a statement, he thanked his family and supporters.
“I’m honored by the over 30,000 voters who supported me in this election,” he said. “We started as big underdog and ran a race based on the conservative principles of our Republican Party.”
In the general election, Zinke will now face Democratic candidate Monica Tranel, a Missoula attorney, and Libertarian John Lamb of Bozeman.
“I look forward to working with Congressman Rosendale on solving the hard issues that face America and the Great State of Montana,” Zinke said in his statement. “One State. Two US Representatives, one fight for freedom.”
Lincoln County counted all of its ballots by hand. The county election administrator says their absentee ballots were cut too short by a quarter of an inch, so they would not run through the automatic ballot-counting machines.
County Commissioner Jerry Bennett told MTN election judges wrapped up their hand count early Thursday afternoon, after more than two full days of work. He praised their handling of the situation.
“They’ve done an incredible job,” he said.
State Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, who represents Lincoln County in the Legislature, also thanked election officials for their work. During the 2021 legislative session, Cuffe was one of the co-sponsors of House Bill 176, which ended Election Day voter registration. He told MTN this situation shows the reason he brought the bill – allowing election officials to focus on issues that arise at the last minute.
“Thank God our election crew didn’t have to tangle with same-day registration this year,” he said.
Cuffe also said this count can serve as an example of what it would take to do full statewide hand counting of ballots – a measure some activists have suggested as a way to address questions about election security.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to include statements from Zinke and Olszewski and additional context about the Lincoln County count.