President-elect Donald Trump’s expected nomination of Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke to lead the Department of the Interior rattled a leadership race on Capitol Hill and surprised the political landscape in his home state.
Zinke has accepted the offer to serve as Interior secretary, according to CNN, which cited an unnamed transition official. Trump’s transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did Zinke’s congressional office.
Liam Donovan, a former finance strategist for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Tuesday that the “real winner” here is Montana’s Sen. Jon Tester since Zinke was mulling a 2018 challenge against the Democratic incumbent.
“There’s no doubt Tester dodged a bullet with the Zinke pick,” Donovan, who’s now director of legislative and political affairs for the Associated Builders and Contractors, said in an interview Wednesday. He noted Montana’s small political bench and the jockeying that will surely occur for Zinke’s at-large seat in the House.
The NRSC did not respond to a request for comment.
When Trump makes his pick official, a series of events will unfold that will largely shape who Tester is likely to face in November 2018. First, Zinke has to either resign his seat or be officially nominated and then confirmed, at which point Montana Republicans would begin consideration of a nominee to replace him in a special election ordered by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. That election could take place as early as April.
According to a national GOP source, Montana Republicans might consider the following individuals to fill Zinke’s seat: Elsie Arntzen, who just won a contested election to be the state’s superintendent for the Office of Public Instruction; Matt Rosendale, recently elected to be state auditor; and Corey Stapleton, recently elected to be secretary of state.
Depending on who gets the congressional nomination, Donovan said any of those candidates might consider campaigns for Senate, but “they’re more likely to take another shot at the at-large special than go after Tester.”
For Senate, he suggested Attorney General Tim Fox, or Greg Gianforte, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2016, might consider challenging Tester.
“Trump’s pick has eliminated his most formidable threat, at least for now,” Donovan said.
Zinke won re-election last month by about 80,000 votes, beating the state’s former top education official, Denise Juneau. A national Democratic operative expressed optimism Tuesday night that Juneau would consider a run again if the seat were to become open.
News of Zinke’s expected nomination also made waves on Capitol Hill, where the House GOP leadership team had expected House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) to get the nod for Interior.
“It was an honor to be invited to spend time with the President-elect, and I’m energized more than ever to continue leading in Congress as we think big, reimagine this government, and put people back at the center of it,” McMorris Rodgers wrote Tuesday in a Facebook post.
McMorris Rodgers’ decision to remain the No. 4 House Republican brings to an end a budding race to replace her. Lawmakers who had been eyeing her leadership post included Reps. Susan Brooks of Indiana and Mimi Walters of California, among others, according to staff members close to Republican leadership.