Zinke Intends to Lead By Example

Former Navy SEAL says GOP must seek common ground to effectively represent

By Tristan Scott

Republican former Navy SEAL Ryan Zinke maintained a steady GOP grip on Montana’s lone U.S. House seat following the Nov. 4 Midterm Elections, but the Congressman-elect from Whitefish says the real work will be representing all Montanans in a divided Congress prone to dragging its heels on issues critical to the state.

In a speech to supporters in Whitefish, where Zinke and his family watched the results trickle in, he said it’s up to Republicans who will now control the Senate as well as the House to work toward a definitive plan on how to deal with the biggest issues facing the nation – energy independence, job creation, health care, and reining in an over-reaching federal government.

“I’m humbled. And now the work begins,” Zinke, 53, said in an interview with the Beacon. “I’ll do my duty and my duty is to make sure that I represent not just the people who voted for me but also to represent the people who did not. And the challenge for the Republican Party is to make sure that we create a vision for what we plan to do, articulate the challenges ahead and show the American people that we are capable of leadership and governing. We have to evolve from a party of ‘no’ to a party of ‘go.’”

Zinke, a former state senator, pulled in 55.5 percent of the vote in Montana with 201,436 votes, while Democratic candidate John Lewis captured 40.3 percent, or 146,474 votes, and Libertarian Mike Fellows received 4.1 percent, or 15,105 votes.

In his home of Flathead County, Zinke pulled in 64 percent of the vote in a midterm election that favored Republicans by a wide margin, while two years ago, Republican Senate candidate Denny Rehberg had 55 percent here.

Zinke won the seat held by one-term Congressman U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who left to run for U.S. Senate, which he also won handily.

Still, Zinke doesn’t strictly toe the GOP party line, calling himself a “blue-collar” Republican who believes that government “stops at the mailbox” regarding social issues.

State legislative colleagues on both sides of the aisle have commended his work in the state Senate, where his voting record often tracked along a moderate contour, even as the campaign season saw him portrayed in alternating extremes, as both too liberal and too conservative while waffling on his positions.

“I never really changed, I was just painted as holding different positions,” Zinke said. “That’s politics. In the primary, I was painted by some as a liberal, and in the general I was painted by some as too conservative. But I represent the interests of Montanans. And in Montana there are hardworking, dedicated and innovative people, and we need to make sure we preserve our ability to innovate and make sure we put government back in the box. We have to restore trust.”

In 2008, Zinke 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.

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., and fostering a culture of distrust.

On current environmental issues, he doesn’t fully support the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, a measure that would permanently protect 435,000 acres of wild and scenic river corridor near Glacier National Park, banning energy development in the area, even as outgoing Congressman Daines has been an strong advocate of the bill. Zinke said permanent protection doesn’t allow for advancements in drilling technology that could mitigate the potential for environmental hazards.

When he arrives in Washington, D.C., Zinke said he intends to be a champion for jobs in rural Montana, which he said is often overlooked by Washington politics, particularly in remote corners of the state like Lincoln County, which holds potential for job creation. He’ll ask to join the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on Natural Resources, he said.

Zinke’s military career as a Navy SEAL commander and his experience as a state senator became a focal point of his campaign as he repeatedly highlighted his 23 years in the Navy, including his role on SEAL Team 6, which later carried out the operation that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.

Leading up to the general election, Zinke portrayed Lewis, a longtime aide to former U.S. Senator and current ambassador to China Max Baucus, as a Washington insider who helped draft the controversial and highly politicized Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

Lewis, meanwhile, ran an “issues-based” campaign, releasing a slate of policy ideas on more than a dozen issues, including promoting access to health care, job creation and reform in Congress.

But the Democrat, who had never run for elected office, could not overcome the wave of Republican support that swept the nation in state and federal races.

Meanwhile, Zinke’s win bucked neither the national trend of Republican victories nor Montana’s recent history of electing GOP candidates to its lone House seat; the last Democrat to win the House seat was former Rep. Pat Williams in 1994.

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