After six months on the hunt for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat, Ryan Zinke has mounted a formidable campaign war chest, tweaked his Republican platform to a fine point and, despite treading hot water in the wake of an unbridled barb aimed at Hillary Clinton and amid allegations of an illegal fundraising channel, has demonstrated an air of profuse confidence.
“The far left says I’m too conservative and the far right says I’m too moderate,” the former state legislator and career Navy SEAL from Whitefish said last week. “For Montana, I think I’m just right.”
The main tenets of his campaign don’t stray far from the GOP boilerplate – an overreaching federal government has thrown the nation into crisis; free, untethered enterprise is the only path to private-sector job creation and a strong economy; the United States must become energy independent, which he says is possible in five years with heavy expansion of domestic oil production; and Obamacare should be repealed.
He singles out the Internal Revenue Service’s scrutinizing of political groups and the National Security Agency’s surveillance of U.S. citizens as examples of an instrusive government, as well as an overregulated business climate that stymies entrepreneurship.
“I thank God the strength of America is not in the government, it’s in the people and their resolve,” he said. “The regulatory burden and overreach is just too excessive. It squashes innovation. We’ve got to grow. And the only way to grow is to get government out of business.”
Still, Zinke doesn’t strictly toe the party line, calling himself a “blue-collar” Republican who believes that government “stops at the mailbox” regarding social issues.
He commends some federal environmental protections while criticizing federal forest mismanagement for failing to log, and says a fractured Republican Party has created a glut of bad blood and internal bickering, making it difficult to accomplish anything in Washington, D.C.
“The Republican party is circling the wagons and then shooting in. It’s confused,” he said. “I think Washington could use a little bit more Montana, and Montana could use a whole lot less of Washington.”
Zinke admits that calling Hillary Clinton the “anti-Christ” during a campaign stop in Bigfork wasn’t an appropriate comparison, but he remains hyper-critical of her time as secretary of state due to the deaths of four Americans in a terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
He characterized the statement as harsh, but recently flirted with the assessment at a Pachyderm lunch in Kalispell, wryly telling the audience that “I’ve got to be nice to Hillary.”
He places heavy emphasis on his military career. His vitae includes 23 years as a Navy SEAL, during which he served as deputy commander of Special Forces in Iraq, commander of Joint Task Forces in Kosovo and Bosnia and mission commander at SEAL Team Six.
In 2008, he was elected to the Montana Senate, where he served as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and in 2012 he lost a race for lieutenant governor while running alongside gubernatorial candidate Neil Livingstone.
This election cycle, Zinke has raised nearly $448,000 from individuals and political action committees, or PACS, through Dec. 31 – more money than any other Montana House candidate, excepting personal donations by candidates. Only 18.7 percent of his total, or $83,700 in itemized donations, has come from Montanans, a figure he says will even out as he ramps up the next phase of fundraising.
Two Washington advocacy groups concerned with clean elections filed a complaint against Zinke with the Federal Election Commission, alleging he coordinated with Special Operations for America (SOFA) – the super PAC he formed in 2012 to support presidential candidate Mitt Romney – to finance his campaign.
Democratic-leaning blogs have also attacked Zinke for what they characterized as unethical coordinating with the super PAC, which is now backing Zinke and other candidates who are veterans.
The groups allege SOFA spent more than $50,000 distributing pro-Zinke ads since he launched his campaign last October.
Meanwhile, his campaign has collected nearly 26 percent of its total campaign funds, or nearly $116,000, from executives and employees of Florida-based Fidelity National Financial Inc., a business created by part-time Whitefish resident William B. Foley II, who is the majority shareholder of Whitefish Mountain Resort.
Zinke dismissed the claims that he’s done anything unethical, describing the attacks as “blog warfare” from the far left.
“They want to hit me anyway they can,” he said. “And the truth doesn’t matter.”
A Senate run by U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who hopes to fill the seat previously held by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who stepped down to become the next ambassador to China, has created a crowded primary election field, with five Republicans vying to replace Daines.
In addition to Zinke, the contenders include state Sen. Elsie Arntzen of Billings, state Sen. Matt Rosendale of Glendive, real estate investor Drew Turiano of Helena and former state Sen. Corey Stapleton of Billings.
On the Democratic side, former Baucus aide John Lewis is making his first run for elected office. Former state Rep. John Driscoll filed to run with the pledge he would accept no campaign contributions for the primary.
Mike Fellows of Missoula filed to run as a Libertarian.
Despite his long list of concerns regarding the state of the country, Zinke is critical of the ultra-conservative right wing, decrying their tactics to hijack the party and dismantle the country.
Striking a tone of optimism, he posed a hypothetical question?
“Why would I want to run for Congress? Because this is fixable. I believe in my heart that we can rebuild America.”
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