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Montana political parties wait for Zinke confirmation as they plan nominating conventions

February 4, 2017 GMT

By now, Jeff Essmann had expected Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke to have been confirmed U.S. Interior secretary and the race to replace Zinke steaming full speed toward a late-April election.

Essmann, Montana’s GOP chairman, couldn’t have been more mistaken. Both of Montana’s political parties had tentatively planned this weekend to select candidates for Zinke’s at-large House seat. It doesn’t appear they’ll be voting until the middle of the month, or even later. One potential Zinke replacement told supporters this week that a Feb. 18 vote seemed doubtful.

The state’s lone congressman and President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Department of the Interior, Zinke easily passed muster Jan. 31 with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which moved his confirmation to the Senate floor, where the list of would-be Trump Cabinet members is eight deep.

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Ahead of Zinke in line is Education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, who has divided the Senate vote in half, setting up a potential tie-breaker by Vice President Mike Pence next week. And Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Trump’s attorney general pick, who is facing stiff opposition from civil rights groups.

“My sources in D.C. tell me that Ryan Zinke will likely not be confirmed next week,” Essmann said Thursday night. “They cannot tell me when he is likely to be confirmed. I am now preparing my fourth and fifth set of contingency plans.” Essmann made the comment on Groundhog Day, and he joked that he was beginning to feel stuck in time like actor Bill Murray in the movie by the same name.

Democrats also thought they’d be picking a U.S. House candidate this weekend. Nancy Keenan, the state party’s executive director had said a couple weeks ago that Feb. 4 looked like the day Democrats from county central committees around the state would converge in Helena and pick a candidate. It’s the county committee people who will pick the party candidate because there’s not enough time for voters to do the job in a primary election.

Now the party has no idea when its nominating convention will begin, said Kristen Cates, Montana Democrat Party spokesman.

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The delay has put the Montana in a tough spot Congressionally. Zinke appears to be moving ahead with plans to lead the Department of the Interior, with his key staff transitioning to the department over the past couple weeks. After participating in House votes in early January, Zinke has been listed as absent from more recent votes, although Montana has just one of Congress’ 435 seats and rarely determines an outcome.

As the waiting period extends, the political landscape is changing for Montana inter-party politics. Twenty of Montana’s 56 counties didn’t have Democratic central committees at the start of the year. Last week, seven new county committees came on board, potentially adding 28 voters to the party’s nominating convention. Many of those new committees came to life after visits by Democrats seeking the party’s nomination to replace Zinke.

A candidate can create a voting bloc by finding Democrats willing to revive committees in counties that have none.

“I feel like outlying counties, they really feel like their voice has not been heard and they’re so excited that there’s someone out there representing their values,” said Rob Quist, a Democrat seeking his party’s nomination. “I think there’s a lot of committees excited that I’m in this state.”

Quist has visited with committees and would-be committees in 30 counties in the past 10 days. As Zinke’s confirmation gets pushed further back, the musician of Mission Mountain Wood Band fame is adding more counties to the list.

Quist said he doesn’t believe all seven new county committees are in his corner. Billings state Rep. Kelly McCarthy, D-Billings, has been working the counties, as well.

Quist and McCarthy are competing against Bozeman attorney John Meyer; and state legislators Amanda Curtis, and Casey Schreiner, of Great Falls.

Republican Ken Miller of Laurel is using the extra time to chip away the support of Bozeman tech entrepreneur and 2016 gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte, who as recently as Wednesday assured supporters that he had the required 50 percent of the committee votes to win the GOP nomination.

With a year of campaigning unsuccessfully for governor, Gianforte has already put more than 30,000 political ads before Montanans. The creator of Bozeman-based RightNow Technologies, a company that sold to Oracle for $1.8 billion in 2014, spent more than $5 million of his own money getting his name out.

In the governor’s election, Gianforte received 46.5 percent of the vote and trailed Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock by 19,818 votes.

Gianforte, who officially announced a week ago, is considered the front-runner for the GOP nomination. Other GOP candidates include Drew Turiano, of East Helena; Dean Rehbein, of Missoula; state Sen. Ed Buttrey, of Great Falls; and state Rep. Carl Glimm, of Kila.

Time of the political shot clock is all Miller says he needs.

“I know Greg started making phone calls the first of December. He really did, when he was saying he was going to look at it after Christmas,” Miller said. “We started making calls the first of January to get commitments. We called everyone two or three times, and we’re doing well.”

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