Ryan Zinke was sworn in on Wednesday as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior in the Trump administration - and the special statewide election to choose his successor in Montana is just 12 weeks away, on Thursday, May 25.
Zinke received support from all Republicans and 17 Democrats in the U.S. Senate; both of Montana's U.S. Senators voted in favor of his confirmation.
The Interior Department is responsible for everything from national parks and wildlife policy to relationships with Native American tribes.
Peggy Trenk, Treasure State Resources Association director, said, "He's already got a lot of familiarity just going into the job. It's a huge job, but what an asset for him to be able to take that to that position and already have the knowledge base that he does."
She hopes Zinke will reconsider Obama administration regulations that limited coal, oil and gas development: "I think there were some far-reaching regulations that we've already talked about on coal that seemed aimed, in our opinion, at putting coal mining out of business."
Overall, Trenk says Zinke will balance energy production with protection of public lands.
"You can have development of natural resources and still enjoy all, you know, outdoor recreation and the quality of life we all appreciate. Those are not exclusive."
But some environmental groups aren't as satisfied with Zinke's selection.
Anne Hedges, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, said, "The Department of Interior is about so much more than just access to public lands. It is about the management of those lands, and that's where we have real concerns about Secretary Zinke."
Hedges says Zinke could encourage mining or drilling in areas that had been set aside for conservation.
She's also concerned with maintaining protections for endangered species: "Anything that undermines the Endangered Species Act has ripple effects for species. Many are in peril today because of climate change."
During his confirmation hearing, Zinke said he accepted climate change existed but wasn't certain what role human activity played in it.
Governor Steve Bullock set the special election date at the soonest time allowed by law, and the state’s three major political parties – Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians – will be nominating candidates by next week.
“It’s a short time line; the horse-race is on,” said Nancy Keenan, executive director of the state Democratic Party. “I imagine the Montana public kind of likes that it’s not going to go on for months and months.”
Democrats will hold their nominating convention Sunday; Republicans will hold theirs on Monday. Both events will be in Helena. Libertarians will choose their nominee via a mail ballot among delegates, said Nathan Pierce, the party’s second vice chair.
Republicans have held Montana’s only U.S. House seat for 20 years and feel confident they can maintain that winning streak – especially in the shadow of a general election that saw Donald Trump best Hillary Clinton by 20 percentage points in Montana.
“I feel the election is going to turn on who supports the pro-growth, economic agenda of President Trump and who will oppose it,” Republican Party Chairman Jeff Essmann told MTN News Wednesday. “The choice is going to be clear.”
Keenan, however, said she thinks the unique nature of the election and bumpy start for President Trump gives Democrats an opening.
“I believe that, in a special election, when you have a chance to talk to Montanans, I think they want an independent check and balance on this president,” she said. “We’re hearing that from Montanans. I believe that this is our opportunity to pick up the seat.”
So far, 15 candidates have said they’re competing for the Democratic or Republican nomination.
The leading Republicans include Greg Gianforte, the Bozeman software entrepreneur who lost last year’s gubernatorial race; state Sen. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls and former state GOP Chair Ken Miller of Laurel.
Leading Democratic candidates include state Reps. Amanda Curtis of Butte and Kelly McCarthy of Billings and singer-songwriter Rob Quist, of Mission Mountain Wood Band fame.
Most party delegates choosing the nominees will be local party officials, who sit on county central committees.
Republicans are requiring candidates to pay the party $1,740 and get signatures from at least 10 members of the state party’s central committee.
The Democratic Party has no such “entry fee;” a candidate needs only to have a delegate nominate them at Sunday’s convention and have that nomination seconded by another delegate.
As many as 150 delegates are expected at the Democratic convention, while Republicans say they could have about 200 delegates.
Gianforte announced last week that he’s already raised $825,000 in campaign funds for the contest and has said he already has enough committed delegates to win the nomination.
Parties must submit their nominees to the secretary of state’s office by March 10.
The election will be run like any other election in Montana, but on a compressed time line.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s office said absentee ballots will be sent out April 28 to those requesting them.
Montanans also can register to vote right up to election day, but must do so at county election offices.
A bill that would allow counties to conduct the election by mail is before the state Legislature, but its fate is uncertain. It has passed the Senate and now sits before the House, which reconvenes next week after a five-day break.