HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke won an unexpectedly tight race 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 hand-counting ballots in one county.
Zinke defeated former state Sen. Al “Doc” Olszewski by just over 1,600 votes out of 84,500 cast in the race, or 1.9 percentage points, according to preliminary numbers. Unofficial results had Zinke with 35,241 votes to 33,633 for Olszewski.
Zinke won “despite facing more than a million dollars of negative advertising against him” by three Republicans, two Democratic candidates and a Democratic Super-PAC, his campaign said in a statement.
In a statement, Zinke thanked former President Donald Trump and others for their endorsements, as well as western Montana residents for their “confidence that America can be fixed and for ignoring” the political attacks.
Olszewski called Zinke to concede the race.
“We started as a big underdog and ran a race based on the conservative principles of our Republican Party,” Olszewski said in a statement, thanking those who voted for him.
Zinke was one of five Republicans on the primary ballot for the open seat, which Montana gained this year thanks to its growing population.
Zinke served as Interior Department secretary under Trump, and his rivals have been drawing attention to a troubled tenure that was marked by multiple ethics investigations. One investigation determined Zinke lied to an agency ethics official about his continued involvement in a commercial real estate deal in his hometown. Federal prosecutors declined to pursue criminal charges.
Despite Trump’s endorsement, Zinke also faced a smear campaign over his military service from the extreme right wing of his party and questions about his residency following revelations that his wife declared a house in California as her primary residence, qualifying her for a tax break.
Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, was considered a de facto incumbent since he twice won elections for the state’s other House seat before stepping down in 2017 to join the Trump administration.
Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon and hardline conservative, tried to paint Zinke as a “liberal insider.”
The political dynamics reflect the GOP’s sharp right turn that meant Zinke’s status as a former Cabinet member wasn’t enough for some in his party. They said he was too soft on guns and didn’t do enough to build Trump’s envisioned wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. His wife’s residence declaration boosted long-standing suspicions that Zinke spends most of his time outside Montana.
Zinke doesn’t deny that his wife is a California resident, and he acknowledges holding fundraisers there. He 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 outcome in the close race was delayed after Lincoln County realized a vendor had printed ballots on the wrong sized paper, meaning they could not be run through a machine tabulator and had to be counted by hand. The hand count began Tuesday and wrapped up late Thursday afternoon.
In November, Zinke will face Olympic rower and attorney Monica Tranel, who won the Democratic primary for the U.S. House seat.