Beating Brian

In late May, former state Sen. Ryan Zinke teased a bid for higher office in 2014. The news wasn't particularly shocking. Montana politicos were lining up fast after Sen. Max Baucus announced his plans for retirement, and Zinke, a Republican from Whitefish, had already hinted that he might run against Baucus before anyone knew the seat would be open. But then Zinke's acknowledgment that "I always stand ready to serve" was touted on the website for Special Operations for America, the super PAC that Zinke chairs. And curiously enough, SOFA had recently changed its committee status with the Federal Election Commission, reflecting an intent to support or oppose only a single candidate for federal office.

SOFA's status change prompted a letter from the FEC in late May requesting information on the candidate the organization intended to target. SOFA Treasurer Scott Hommel says the switch was little more than a clerical error, and records show the group amended its status this week. But Zinke, the Seal Team Six veteran who lost the 2012 Republican primary for lieutenant governor alongside Neil Livingstone, confirmed for the Indy he isn't ruling out running for Baucus' seat. A few things just have to happen first.

For starters, Zinke's holding off until former Gov. Marc Racicot and Congressman Steve Daines make their intentions known. Those are the Republicans with the best chance of beating Brian Schweitzer, Zinke says, provided the former Democratic governor declares. "People ask me, 'Are you excited for a race?'" Zinke says. "Well, no. I'd prefer to support somebody else."

A 2014 Senate campaign would also require that Zinke step down as chairman of SOFA, which he founded last year to oppose President Barack Obama's reelection. The group's activity has picked up recently, extending support to former servicemen running for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts and Louisiana. Donations have reached an all-time high in the latest quarter too, Zinke adds. "SOFA has given me a platform to promote restoring trust," he says.

Lastly, Zinke feels that for him to have any chance against a Democratic heavyweight like Schweitzer, the Montana Republican Party will have to get its act together. The 2013 Legislature revealed a deep divide in the state GOP, with moderates and hardline conservatives unable to unite. That rift must be mended, Zinke says, in order to make broad support and fundraising for a Republican Senate candidate possible.

Zinke believes a Senate face-off between himself and Schweitzer "would be an interesting race." Of course, if he does end up next to Schweitzer in a debate setting, Zinke sees some irony in it. It was Schweitzer, after all, who pinned Zinke's second bronze star to his chest during a ceremony at the Whitefish Lake Golf Course in 2006.

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