HELENA, Mont. (CN) – Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., was confirmed Wednesday as President Donald Trump’s choice for Interior secretary, the first-ever presidential cabinet secretary from Montana, and promptly resigned his congressional post.
“Today it is with a heavy but optimistic heart that I resign from my position as the congressman for Montana,” Zinke said in a statement. “I’m resigning not because I do not wish to serve Montana, but rather it is to accept the role of Secretary of the Department of the Interior and serve Montana at a higher level.”
Zinke’s confirmation now means Montana must have a special election to replace him – and that is causing a bit of controversy in the state, where the 65th Legislature has now convened.
Last week, Senate Bill 305 was debated in the Legislature. The bill would allow counties in Montana to hold a one-time special election by mail-in ballots, and could save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Montana GOP chairman Jeff Essmann said a mail-in ballot would favor a Democrat.
Essmann sent out an email titled “Emergency Chairman’s Report,” claiming Democrats have “perfected the mechanics of using mail ballots” and “the long-term viability of our Republican party” are in danger if Zinke’s replacement is chosen by mail.
“All mail ballots give the Democrats an inherent advantage in close elections due to their ability to organize large numbers of unpaid college students and members of public employee unions to gather ballots by going door to door,” Essmann said in his letter.
He added: “While I believe it has been introduced on behalf of many county commissioners who wish to reduce the fiscal impact to their county budgets of the special election to replace Congressman Zinke, the bill will have long-term negative impacts to the future election prospects of Republicans at all levels in Montana.”
Essmann said “vote-by-mail is designed to increase participation rates of lower-propensity voters. Democrats in Montana perform better than Republican candidates among lower-propensity voters, and Republican candidates do better among higher-propensity voters.”
He continued, “This bill could be the death of our effort to make Montana a reliably Republican state. It is my job to remind us all of the long-term strategic advantage that passage of this bill would provide to our Democrat opponents for control of our Legislature and our statewide elected positions.”
Even Montana’s top election official, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, spoke out in a committee meeting against the ballot measure. But rather than tout the need for a reliably Republican state, Stapleton said the mail-in ballots could lead to more dangerous drugs in Montana.
“If you look at the three states that have (mail-in balloting), you can see that populism and direct democracy at its best. All three states – Oregon, Washington and Colorado – do all-mail-in ballots and they’re all marijuana-all-the-time states too,” Stapleton said. “Is that what you want? Because that’s what you’re going to get.”
State Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, spoke in favor of his bill. He said his bill does not require Montana counties to use mail-in ballots, and is a way for the 56 Montana counties to save money during the special election. He said the election could break the bank for some of these counties, which are already dealing with lower property-tax revenue. The bill has passed in committee and is headed to a full House vote, scheduled for Wednesday.
Gov. Steve Bullock has scheduled May 25 as the special election date, and political parties in Montana are putting forth candidates.
For his part, Essmann lauded Trump’s pick for Interior secretary.
“There is no better person to stand up for Montana values than Ryan Zinke,” Essmann said in a statement.
The U.S. Senate voted 68-31 Wednesday to confirm Zinke as the 52nd Secretary of the Interior. Trump had nominated Zinke Dec. 15, but Zinke’s confirmation was delayed until this month. It was rumored that the delay was due to Zinke making statements that he believed in human-caused climate change, which is opposite Trump’s political narrative.