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Published on January 5th, 2017 | by Montana Mint Staff

Who will replace Ryan Zinke? What we know so far

President-Elect Trump announced his plans to nominate Montana’s Ryan Zinke to serve as Secretary of the Department of the Interior.

If Zinke is confirmed by the Senate (which he is expected to do easily), Montana will elect his replacement through a special election.  The candidates for the special election will be determined not by a primary election, but rather by the state central committees in a nominating convention.

Here is the list of the individuals that have announced or are rumored to be considering running to replace Zinke. (updated 1/23/17: Updated Casey Schreiner)
(updated 1/29/17: Updated Greg Gianforte)


Bob Brown, former Secretary of State

Status: Rumored
Pros: Has previously won statewide, viewed as a moderate
Cons: Viewed as a moderate
Chances: Brown endorsed Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, which could rub some Republicans the wrong way. Most agree Brown is a good guy, but he has not won an election since 2000. In 2015, ran through all of his strengths. Republicans could do a lot worse.

Ed Buttrey, Montana State Senator

Status: Announced
Pros: Respected among establishment Republicans/moderates, has shown ability to broker deals on major legislation like Montana’s Medicaid expansion
Cons: Has never run statewide, some may not like his bipartisan work on Medicaid expansion
Chances: Buttrey was the first to announce, and there is some value in being the first out of the gate. However, he sponsored the Medicaid expansion bill passed by moderate Republicans and Democrats last session, which may not sit well with the nominating convention. State legislators, even those that work on major legislation, have low name recognition even within their districts.

Jeff Essmann, Montana GOP Chairman

Status: Rumored
Pros: Well-connected, has party leadership experience
Cons: Potentially too conservative, not an experienced campaigner
Chances: Despite his comparatively high name ID, Essmann would come into the race with little real campaign experience – he dropped out of the 2012 governor’s race when his bid failed to gain traction  He’s only been elected to safe Republican seats as a legislator.

Russell Fagg, District Judge

Status: Considering
Pros: Decent name recognition from being a judge and from column in Billings Gazette
Cons: Has never run statewide
Chances: This Missoulian piece makes it seem like Fagg is wishy-washy on running…not a great start to what will be a hectic and all-consuming four month campaign.  A quick Google search reveals Fagg is on the record defending the decision to give District Judge G. Todd Baugh a lifetime achievement award.  You’ll recall that Baugh came under fire for comments he made about a 14-year old rape victim during a sentencing proceeding.  The victim later committed suicide.  While Fagg is not responsible for the words of Baugh, he is responsible for his decision to publicly defend the lifetime achievement award.

Greg Gianforte, former candidate for Governor

Status: Announced
Pros: High name ID, experienced campaigner, lots of $$$
Cons: One of the only Republicans to lose in 2016, despite lots of $$$
Chances: Given his recent high-profile race against Governor Steve Bullock, Gianforte is an obvious choice. When asked about his interest in the seat, Gianforte gave this wishy-washy answer: “I have appreciated the many calls of support and encouragement we have received from folks urging me to run if indeed there is a vacancy in our U.S. House seat. But right now, like many other Montanans, I’m hoping for more snow, filling the freezer with my hunting efforts and getting ready to celebrate Christmas with my family.” He’d be a heavy favorite were he to run.  Update January 16: In a big power move, Gianforte arranged for a majority of potential delegates to sign a letter supporting his candidacy, although Gianforte has not officially declared.  The move takes the wind out of the other GOP candidates’ sails, even if Gianforte decides not to run. See this KXLF story for more.  Update January 29: Gianforte is running).

Eugene Graf IV, Bozeman home builder

Status: Announced
Pros: TBD
Cons: No political experience, no government experience
Chances: We’d like to say zero chance, but we just elected a political newbie from the building world to be President, so who knows.

Brad Johnson, Chairman of the Public Service Commission and former Montana Secretary of State

Status: Rumored
Pros: Has won statewide, well known in the party
Cons: Boring, received DUI in 2010
Chances: Johnson has been around Montana politics since he challenged Pat Williams for his House seat in 1990, so he has the skills and experience to win statewide. He’s a safe choice, but uninspiring.

Travis Kavulla, Public Service Commissioner

Status: Rumored
Pros: Smart, nationally connected
Cons: Low name ID
Chances: Republican sources tell us the PSC Commissioner would be wise to consider a run for the House. As our source tells us, Kavulla “has been plotting a run since he was in high school.” Kavulla is smart and has been an effective Commissioner, but it would be difficult, but not impossible, for him to overcome his low name identification.

Austen Knudsen, Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives

Status: Rumored
Pros: Ambitious, Young
Cons: Has never run statewide, was caught up in the dress code fiasco of 2014
Chances: According to a Republican source, Knudsen has the skills to run statewide and tossing his name into consideration might be a low-risk opportunity for him to build his statewide profile.

Ken Miller, former GOP chair and former Montana State Senator

Status: Announced
Pros: Statewide name recognition
Cons: Has run and lost in statewide primaries, sent email below
Chances: Ken Miller is a well-known but uninspiring option for the Republicans.  In a fairly tone-deaf move, Miller sent out an email last week outlining why other Republicans should not run, specifically calling out Greg Gianforte, Matt Rosendale, and Scott Sales.  The Chronicle has specifics on the email that is worth reading.

Matt Rosendale, incoming Montana State Auditor

Status: Rumored
Pros: Won statewide in 2016, well-connected in Republican Party
Cons: Hasn’t even started his new job, would be returning to the “inherent liberal socialism of the East Coast
Chances: Rosendale was just elected as Montana’s State Auditor. If he were to run (and win) it would allow Governor Steve Bullock to fill the seat. The Auditor is one of five votes on the Montana Land Board (along with the Governor, Attorney General, OPI, and Secretary of State), and there may be a hesitation among those at the nominating convention to give that up.

Scott Sales, President of the Montana State Senate

Status: Announced
Pros: Popular in the Republican Party
Cons: Lots of scandals, ties to Koch brothers and Western Tradition Partnership
Chances: Sales has been around for a long time, and was recently elected to serve as the President of the Montana State Senate. A quick Google search reveals Sales’ name has been caught up in a number of scandals. Democrats would love to run against him.

Richard Spencer, former editor of, white nationalist activist

Status: Considering
Pros: Good at getting his name in the press
Cons: White nationalist, never held office
Chances: It seems unlikely the Republicans will pick him at the a conventions, which means he would have to qualify for the ballot as an independent. To do so, he would have to gather 15,000 signatures. How hard is this? The Flathead Memo says: “If he worked by himself, he’d have to collect a signature every 40 seconds for 12 hours a day. He’s never worked that hard in his life, and he’s not going to start now. Nor is he going to recruit a squad of canvassers, let alone a squad of paid canvassers, to knock on doors, [and] get signatures… He’s just going to say he’s contemplating running and get free publicity in the form of news reports.”

AshLee Strong, Press Secretary for Speaker Paul Ryan

Status: Rumored
Pros: Knows Paul Ryan
Cons: No statewide name ID, lives in Washington, D.C.
Chances: Strong is the National Press Secretary for Speaker Paul Ryan and has been involved in national Republican politics since 2006. Strong dismissed any interest in the seat, but the fact she is even being asked signals she has an interest in eventually running in Montana.

Daniel Zolnikov, Member of Montana Legislature

Status: “Looking into it”
Pros: Young, ambitious
Cons: No statewide experience
Chances: Like Knudsen, Zolnikov may consider a run, if only to raise his statewide profile.


Zeno Baucus, assistant US attorney and son of Max Baucus

Status: Considering
Pros: Young, ambitious, well-connected
Cons: Never held elected office
Chances: Despite never running for office, it would inaccurate to say Zeno Baucus has zero political experience.  That’s because he grew up with one of Montana’s most successful politicians as his father.  If Baucus were to jump in the race, he would likely be considered a favorite.

Amanda Curtis, former U.S. Senate candidate and Member of the Montana House of Representatives

Status: Announced
Pros: U.S. Senate candidate in 2014, decent name ID
Cons: While she technically was a statewide candidate, she never really ran a statewide campaign
Chances: Montana liberals cheered when Curtis was nominated to replace John Walsh in the race against Steve Daines for the U.S. Senate. Curtis was put in a no-win situation and, well, she didn’t win. She could win, but would need the national mood to turn against Trump and would need to face the right opponent.

Jenny Eck, Member of the Montana House of Representatives

Status: Rumored
Pros: Well-connected and respected among Democrats
Cons: Never ran statewide
Chances: Eck has demonstrated an ability to be an effective legislator and has earned the respect of many Democrats. A source involved with the Democrat party said some are calling for Eck to run, even if just to raise her statewide profile.

Denise Juneau, former Superintendent of Public Instruction, former candidate for Congress

Status: Rumored
Pros: High name identification, has run three statewide campaigns
Cons: Just ran a strong campaign and lost by double digits
Chances: Besides Schweitzer, Juneau is the name that gets Democrats most excited. Juneau is still recovering from her loss to Zinke, and it is unclear if she is interested in running again. Until she rules it out, she has to be considered a favorite to run and win.

Jesse Laslovich, former legislator

Status: Rumored
Pros: Has run two statewide campaigns
Cons: Has lost two statewide campaigns
Chances: Laslovich was an effective member when he served in the state legislature, but has not been able to translate that to statewide success. He lost the Democratic Primary for Attorney General in 2012, and just lost the general election for State Auditor in November. He has the drive, the resume, and the experience, but it is unclear if he can translate that into votes.

John Lewis, former Congressional candidate

Status: Rumored
Pros: Young, personable, and experience running statewide
Cons: May not be interested
Chances: Lewis would be a strong candidate if he were to run, but may not want to run as he was recently named the Director of the Department of Administration.

Monica Lindeen, former Montana State Auditor

Status: Rumored
Pros: Has run and won statewide multiple times
Cons: Democrats are not excited for Lindeen
Chances: Much like Bob Brown for the Republicans, Lindeen is well-liked in her party and has been around for years. Also like Brown, Lindeen does not inspire much confidence. A democratic source speculated if Lindeen was the nominee, she doesn’t have the skills to beat any Republican.

Kelly McCarthy, Member of the Montana House of Representatives

Status: Announced
Pros: Veteran
Cons: No statewide experience
Chances: McCarthy just won his third term to represent Yellowstone County in Helena. He has an impressive resume, having spent 16 years in the US Air Force, but has no statewide experience or meaningful fundraising experience.

John Meyer, Attorney

Status: Announced
Pros: TBD
Cons: No political experience, no government experience
Chances: Meyer announced his candidacy over the weekend.  Much like Eugene Graf IV, Meyer is from Bozeman and has no experience.

Andrew Person, former Member of the Montana House of Representatives

Status: Rumored
Pros: Great resume
Cons: Not known statewide
Chances: Despite an unsuccessful bid for reelection in his Missoula House District, a Democratic source labeled Person (pronounced PEER-son) as the future of the Montana Democrats. He’s young and his resume is impressive: Person is a veteran, a graduate from UM Law School, and has a master’s from Georgetown. Person would be a big underdog, but is clearly a rising star in the party.

Rob Quist, Rancher and Musician

Status: Announced
Pros: Well known, supported by Brian Schweitzer
Cons: No political experience
Chances: Unconventional but seems to be a great option for the Democrats.  Quist formed the super popular Mission Mountain Wood Band and has been touring around the state as long as we can remember.  He looks the part, has bipartisan appeal, and seems to have the support of Brian Schweitzer.

Casey Schreiner, Member of the Montana House of Representatives

Status: Announced, No longer running
Pros: Former teacher, young
Cons: Low name ID
Chances: A source in the Democratic Party said Schreiner is considering a run. Like Eck, Schreiner would be an underdog but a statewide race would help establish his name around the state. [UPDATE 12/27: Schreiner is running], [UPDATE 1/23: No he’s not]

Brian Schweitzer, former Governor

Status: Rumored
Pros: Popular, experienced, well connected.
Cons: Has said he doesn’t want to live in D.C., loose lips sink ships (although now maybe that’s a pro?)
Chances: OBVIOUS – If he enters the race, he would be the clear favorite.


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