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House Hopeful Ryan Zinke Banks On Experience, Leadership

Rep. Ryan Zinke.
Kaci Felstet

  You’ve seen Ryan Zinke’s ads, the ones with the medals, the flags and the tall, square-jawed candidate in combat fatigues or the dress uniform of a Navy Seal.

“In the Seals we’re taught to lead from the front and never quit until the job is done,” he said in one ad before the primary. “Isn’t that what we need in Washington right now?”

Zinke’s message of leadership is hard to miss as the 52-year-old contrasts his experience with that of his Democratic opponent, 36-year-old John Lewis, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Max Baucus. But where exactly does Zinke hope to lead Montana in Congress?

He’s said he’s pro-life and pro-gun. He wants to abandon Obamacare and boost American production of oil, gas and coal. He’s blasted government regulation for “smothering” business. He’s said he wants to improve Montana’s infrastructure, even its cell phone service.

“Iraq has better cell phone coverage than Montana,” Zinke said.

From war to politics

He knows about Iraq. In his 23 years as a Navy Seal, Zinke fought there, overseeing special operations, winning two Bronze Stars for combat and suffering wounds. Before that he oversaw missions in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. In the 1990s, he served with Seal Team Six, the group that killed Osama bin Laden three years after Zinke’s retirement.

A fifth-generation Montanan who starred in football at the University of Oregon, Zinke returned to his hometown of Whitefish in 2008 with his wife and three children. He started a consulting business that deals with aerospace, oil and gas, and national security.

He began a political career, serving one term in the Montana Senate, where he chaired the Education Committee and was known as a moderate who sought compromise on subjects like school funding and workers’ compensation reform.

“He consistently put his conscience and constituents above his caucus’ position,” said Sen. Llew Jones, a Conrad Republican.

In 2012, Zinke lost a race for lieutenant governor but when Congressman Steve Daines decided to run for the U.S. Senate, Zinke joined four other Republicans in the race to replace him.

Surviving the primary

It was a tough campaign. His claim to be the “right conservative for Montana” drew fire from rivals who questioned his stance on abortion, saying he was less of a pro-life stalwart than he appeared.

They attacked his record on gun control, noting that he had once supported background checks, scored a mediocre rating from the National Rifle Association’s Victory Fund in 2008, and had qualms about civilians owning .50-caliber rifles.

Critics also questioned Zinke’s role in a Super PAC he formed to support Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. He quit as the chairman of Special Operations for America PAC before announcing his candidacy for Congress, but his campaign has since collected more than $175,000 from the group.

Several groups want the Federal Election Commission to investigate whether Zinke and SOFA coordinated those donations, which would violate FEC rules.

“I don’t coordinate, and those allegations are absolutely political B.S.,” Zinke said.

He also was criticized for releasing some, but not all, of his military records, and he admitted that the Navy made him repay $211 he charged it for making a recruiting trip to Montana in the 1990s.

Zinke won the five-way primary, though two of every three Republicans voting chose another candidate.

"A lot of Republicans supported other candidates in the primary who were perceived to be more conservative,” said professor David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University. “So some are less than thrilled with Zinke and are still getting comfortable with him."

On to November

Zinke has spent much of the campaign since stressing leadership and explaining his positions to independent voters, who will likely decide the race’s outcome.

He said he’s pro-life, but supports pregnancy education and prevention programs, including access to contraceptives. Despite his personal beliefs, he said, the U.S. Supreme Court has legalized abortions, so abortion shouldn’t be a congressional issue. “The court has ruled, and I respect the court,” he said. “That’s the American process.”

He’s called for abandoning Obamacare like a “sinking ship.” He says the law discourages business from adding jobs, though likes its coverage of pre-existing conditions and extended coverage for young people.

Zinke, who’s on the board of a company that improves the performance of oil and gas pipelines, also stresses the need to make America energy independent.

He supports completion of the Keystone XL pipeline, saying it would be the safest ever built “It is about making this country energy independent, which is about jobs,” Zinke said.

Zinke acknowledges climate change and that humans are an influence, but said the research is inconclusive. “You don’t dismantle American power and our energy sources on a maybe,” he said. “You work to make it cleaner.”

If elected

If elected, Zinke said he would put America’s interests ahead of partisan politics. “Just because it’s a Republican bill doesn’t mean it’s the right bill,” he said.

Sen. Jones, a Republican, said Zinke had a legislative reputation for independence. “He consistently put his conscious and constituents above his caucus’s position,” Jones said.

Jones predicted Zinke’s experience would make him a good leader for Montana. “They say the past is a good prediction for the future, and to date, he’s stepped up to a number of leadership roles,” Jones said.

Leadership and experience remain the twin drumbeats of Zinke’s mission as the campaign races toward Election Day.

One of his TV ads opens with a photograph of Zinke among members of his Navy Seal team in 1988. The ad then explains that, John Lewis, the 36-year-old Democratic nominee, spent that year in the fifth grade. Lewis rankles at the implication, saying ideas matter more than years.

But Zinke isn’t backing off. “My experience is extensive,” he said. “His experience is not.”

UM School of Journalism

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