Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) Democrat Monica Tranel faces “an uphill climb” to represent Montana in the U.S. House of Representatives, but Republican and favorite Ryan Zinke “has a unique image problem,” said the Cook Political Report as it shifted its projection for the district from “Likely Republican” to “Leans Republican.”

Wednesday, the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both announced a ratings change in new analyses of the Montana race. The Crystal Ball also moved the new western district from “likely” to “leans” Republican.

In an “Upset Alert” for multiple states, Crystal Ball analysts Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman highlighted “deep sleeper potential upsets,” although they said Zinke, previously elected to the House, is favored to win over Missoula lawyer Tranel. Libertarian John Lamb is running as well.

“There are some similarities here to Alaska’s recent House special election, won by now-Rep. Mary Peltola (D-Alaska), as a talented Democratic woman runs against a former elected official (Zinke) who became a national figure and lost some luster as a result of it,” the analysts said.

Zinke served as former President Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Interior but resigned in January 2019 in the midst of multiple ethics investigations. A couple of reports released this year by the Inspector General’s Office found Zinke, a U.S. Navy SEAL, didn’t provide truthful information to investigators.

At the Cook Political Report, David Wasserman noted Zinke is unpopular, and the National Republican Congressional Committee has spent $1.4 million trying to “rehab his image.” But he also said former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock couldn’t carry the counties in the western district in 2020 when he ran for the U.S. Senate despite his popularity.

A poll commissioned and released earlier this month by the Big Sky Voters PAC showed Zinke with a 41 percent lead to Tranel’s 40 percent, Lamb’s 8 percent, with 11 percent undecided. The poll of 840 interviews was conducted by Victoria Research, which counts Democratic organizations and candidates as clients, and it noted a 3.4 percent margin of error, according to a memo from the firm.

It also said Zinke had a 49 percent unfavorable rating and 41 percent favorable rating; it said Tranel had a 37 percent favorable rating and 32 percent unfavorable rating, with an opportunity to still introduce herself to 31 percent of voters.

“Zinke is underperforming the general partisan leaning of this district significantly,” said the memo from Victoria Research. “Voters in the survey say they prefer a generic Republican candidate over a Democratic one by five points: 47 percent to 42 percent.”

However, the Cook Political Report said Republican polls show Zinke in a “slightly better position” than the one released by the Big Sky Voters PAC.

Inside Elections already had moved its projection from “likely” to “leans” Republican. This week, FiveThirtyEight further dropped the number of times it predicts Zinke wins by one point, but it has him claiming victory 93 times out of 100.