Ryan Zinke fancies himself a snake wrangler.
The former Trump-era interior secretary, and current GOP nominee for Montana’s new U.S. House seat, is campaigning on a promise to, you guessed it, take on the proverbial “swamp” of bureaucrats and so-called “deep state” insiders in Washington, D.C. — a platform that seems to implicitly acknowledge the Trump administration’s failure to get the job done.
“When you drain the swamp, it exposes serpents. And they attack!” Zinke said in a campaign-style video posted in May. “As interior secretary, I got an extra dose of fake news and false charges. And now, running for Congress, it’s happening again.”
Zinke’s critics, including his Democratic opponent, Monica Tranel, see him as a creature of that very swamp — someone who was plagued by scandal and ethical shortfalls, and who ultimately cashed out with powerful special interests after leaving his government post.
On Thursday, Tranel released her third snake-themed campaign advertisement, titled “Snake on a Plane.” The ad sums up the findings of several Interior Department watchdog investigations into Zinke’s conduct, including his use of private planes.
“I’ve spent my career taking on snakes like Ryan Zinke,” Tranel says in the ad, standing at an airstrip and holding a snake in a shovel. “In Congress, I’ll take on anyone who tries to rip off Montana.”
Zinke, Tranel and Libertarian John Lamb are vying for Montana’s newly created House seat, which covers the western part of the state.
If elected, Zinke has said his first piece of legislation would be the so-called Federal Employee Accountability & Reduction Act, or FEAR Act, which would aim to gut federal agencies of public servants and put limits on how long a person can hold a federal job. The 10-point legislative framework is the culmination of years of his own self-victimization.
In an email to a Montana resident a few months after being sworn in as Trump’s interior chief, Zinke grumbled about the pace of his staff and declared that “the resistance movement is alive and well.”
“Draining the swamp is a full tome [sic] job,” he wrote. “We will win.”
Tranel, a two-time Olympic rower and environmental lawyer, has leaned into snake-themed attacks.
Another advertisement ahead of the June primary summarized the findings of a February report from Interior’s internal watchdog, which concluded that Zinke violated ethics rules and misused his office with his continued involvement in a real estate project in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana, and that he lied to investigators about it.
Tranel appears in the ad, carrying a motionless snake on a shovel. “Growing up on a ranch in Montana, I learned how to deal with snakes,” she says. “And we have a real poisonous one in Ryan Zinke.”
But surely, Tranel would not have killed a snake just to make a point about Zinke.
Sam Sterling, Tranel’s campaign manager, clarified that no snakes were harmed in the making of the ad. He told HuffPost the campaign rented the reptile from a “kids’ birthday party place,” and that the animal cooperated for the filming by lying still on the shovel.
More recently, Zinke took to Twitter ahead of last week’s televised candidate debate to post this picture:
The photo is of an unofficial secretarial portrait, first unveiled in 2020, that is nothing more than Zinke’s face pasted onto fantasy artist Frank Frazetta’s painting “Death Dealer 6.” It depicts Zinke riding on horseback through flames, wielding an ax and fighting a massive serpent — no doubt a reference to the Trump administration’s “drain the swamp” rhetoric.
Zinke’s post provided more fodder for the Tranel camp.
“Ryan Zinke said, ‘When you drain the swamp, it exposes serpents.’ He even had this portrait made,” Tranel said in yet another snake–centric ad released this week. “Are you kidding me? Ryan Zinke is the biggest snake of them all.”