HELEN, Mont. (AP) – Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke won a surprisingly close race on Thursday to become the Republican nominee in the race for a new U.S. House seat representing Western Montana, a victory that comes after days of manually counting ballots in one county.
Zinke beat former state senator Al “Doc” Olszewski by just over 1,600 out of 84,500 votes cast in the race, or 1.9 percentage points, according to preliminary numbers.
Zinke was one of five Republicans in the primary ballot for the open seat, which Montana won this year on the back of its growing population.
Zinke served as Secretary of the Interior under then-President Donald Trump, and his rivals have drawn attention to a troubled tenure that has been marred by multiple ethics investigations. An investigation determined Zinke lied to an agency ethics officer of his ongoing involvement in a commercial real estate transaction in his hometown. Federal prosecutors declined to pursue criminal charges.
Despite Trump’s endorsement, Zinke has also faced a smear campaign about his military service from his party’s far-right and questions about his residency following revelations that his wife said a home in California as her primary residence, qualifying her for tax relief.
Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, was considered a de facto incumbent since winning the election for the state’s other House seat twice before stepping down in 2017 to join the Trump administration.
Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon and die-hard conservative, attempted to portray Zinke as a “liberal insider”.
The political dynamic reflects the GOP’s rightward shift that meant Zinke’s status as a former cabinet minister was not good enough for some members of his party. They said he was too soft on guns and hadn’t done enough to build Trump’s envisioned wall on the US-Mexico border. His wife’s residency declaration reinforced longstanding suspicions that Zinke spends most of his time outside of Montana.
Zinke does not deny that his wife is a California resident and he admits to fundraising there. He has raised a total of $2.5 million through the end of March, almost as much as all other candidates from both parties combined, about 80% from out-of-state donors.
The result of the close race was delayed after Lincoln County realized a vendor had printed ballots on the wrong size paper, meaning they couldn’t be passed through a tabulating machine and had to be counted by hand. Hand counting began on Tuesday and ended Thursday afternoon.
Zinke edged Olszewski in Lincoln County by 428 votes in unofficial results.
In November, Zinke will face Olympic rower and lawyer Monica Tranel, who won the Democratic primary for the U.S. House seat.
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