On a recent Friday night, retired Navy SEAL and 2014 Republican congressional candidate Ryan Zinke chatted up potential campaign donors in a side room just off The Depot’s deck in downtown Missoula. He’d spent the afternoon hosting similar meet-and-greets in Hamilton and Stevensville as part of his statewide Leadership Tour, a two-week trek in a flashy blue campaign RV adorned with the Navy SEAL logo and the tagline “Zinke U.S. Congress.” A sign on The Depot room door read Private Party; the event listing on Zinke’s campaign website underscored for potential attendees that “contributions are greatly appreciated.”
Outside, a trio of pro-choice advocates stood across the street from Zinke’s RV holding signs asking that the candidate clearly state his stance on abortion. Zinke, also a former state senator, had come under fire just days earlier for allegedly flip-flopping on the issue. After the 2009 legislative session, NARAL Pro-Choice Montana gave him a score of 65 percent for his voting record on abortion-related bills. Since declaring for U.S. House last fall, Zinke has defended his “100-percent pro-life” record.
Rachel Pauli’s sign was simple and direct: “Mr. Zinke, where do you stand on choice?” Pauli and her cohorts had arrived shortly before Zinke, and as the candidate entered The Depot, Pauli said she pressed him directly.
“I said, ‘Mr. Zinke, I have a question for you,’” she recalled. “He didn’t acknowledge me. Then I asked, ‘Where do you stand on choice?’ And he went inside.”
Zinke’s campaign has picked up steam in recent months, bolstered by television and radio ad-buys and more than $900,000 in contributions—the most any House candidate has raised so far. His congressional bid has also been supported by more than $110,000 in independent expenditures by Special Operations for America, the super PAC Zinke founded in 2012. And just last week, Zinke won an endorsement from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Concerns over Zinke’s candidacy aren’t confined to the left. On May 7, two days before Zinke’s Missoula fundraiser, three former state GOP chairmen made the unprecedented move of issuing a joint press statement highlighting why they feel Zinke’s views “are not right for Montana.” The reasons ranged from perceptions of flip-flopping to Zinke’s close ties to the very super PAC spending heavy on his behalf.
“It was an accumulation of stuff,” says former state Sen. Ken Miller, who authored the statement alongside former U.S. Rep. Rick Hill and current state Sen. John Brenden. “Had there been just one issue, I wouldn’t have gone to this measure. But it’s an accumulation of issues and statements that piled up … Finally I said, ‘I’ve got to let people know what I know.’”
Miller, Hill and Brenden were careful to note that they commend Zinke on his military service. Miller says he just felt “an obligation” to alert conservative voters to his belief that Zinke is “back and forth on all the major issues,” from abortion to gun rights.
In an interview with the Indy, Zinke counters that he’s always been pro-life—“but I also support education and prevention.” He’s also always been pro-gun—“but I don’t think we need guns in airports or federal courthouses.” As for the attacks, Zinke expected them.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “I understand the tragedy of modern-day politics is people make up whatever they want to and some people listen.”
Conservatives appear wildly split going into the four-way Republican primary. Even Miller, Hill and Brenden differ on the best choice; Hill has endorsed state Sen. Elsie Arntzen while Brenden has thrown his weight behind state Sen. Matt Rosendale. Miller continues to support “any candidate but Zinke.”
The super PAC is proving one of the primary sources of criticism with Zinke’s bid. Zinke founded Special Operations for America in 2012 to oppose President Barack Obama’s reelection and served as the super PAC’s chairman until Sept. 30, 2013. After he stepped down SOFA launched a “Draft Zinke for U.S. Congress” effort, and on Oct. 21, Zinke’s campaign committee officially filed with the Federal Election Commission.
The campaign and the super PAC are legally barred from coordinating with one another. Yet Miller and other Zinke critics feel the relationship between the two is extremely suspicious. In fact, two liberal watchdog groups from Washington, D.C., filed a formal complaint with the FEC in early March alleging that Zinke’s campaign was coordinating with SOFA. The Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 pointed to two pro-Zinke SOFA ads aired this January that contained images similar to photos posted on the Zinke campaign’s Facebook page. The groups believe the images are “from photo shoots arranged and paid for by Ryan Zinke and/or the Zinke for Congress committee.” The complaint goes on to state that the photos contained in the SOFA ads do not appear to be in the public domain, suggesting that Zinke or his campaign “directly provided these photos to SOFA.”
Zinke takes issue with that accusation as well. He says his campaign has been “absolutely above the law” in regards to SOFA, and he insists the photos must have been taken from the public domain. He’s trying to run “a positive, truthful campaign,” he says, and wishes others would do likewise. When asked if, on that note, he’s concerned about SOFA’s recent $30,000 ad buy attacking Rosendale, Zinke says he isn’t.
“It’s really not a concern because I don’t control it,” he says. “But I’ve asked that any group that would play on my behalf remains positive. I’ve done my duty and my best.”