Trump ally Zinke is fighting claims he’s too ‘liberal’ for Montana

BUTTE, Mont. – When Republican Ryan Zinke first ran for Congress, the former Navy SEAL faced false accusations, reinforced by Democrats, that his military career had fallen out of favor.

After winning in 2014 and being elected Home Secretary by President Donald Trump two years later, Zinke is seeking a return to Congress and faces a nearly identical smear campaign – this time from the right wing of his own party.

A website allied with one of his opponents accuses Zinke of exaggerating his military service — not to mention two bronze stars Zinke earned in Iraq — and being demoted, which is his due refute service records.

It’s part of a broader campaign by some Republicans ahead of the June 7 state primary to thwart Zinke’s Offer for a political comeback and propose a more conservative candidate for the general election.


The political dynamic reflects the sharp right turn the GOP has taken since Trump stormed the Montana voting scene with repeat visits in a barnstorm in the 2018 election failed attempt to unseat Democratic US Senator Jon Tester.

Zinke’s status as a former Trump cabinet member is simply no longer enough for some in his party. They say he’s too liberal and soft on guns and hasn’t done enough to build Trump’s proposed wall on the US-Mexico border.

Zinke has also been dogged by troubles of his own making, including recent revelations that he lied to a federal ethics officer in front of his 2018 retirement from the Ministry of the Interior.

This month came a revelation from Politico that Zinke’s wife, Lolita, had designated her family’s home in California as her primary residence. That fueled long-standing suspicions that Zinke spends most of his time outside of Montana.


His opponents see an opportunity to gain traction with Trump voters, who seemed like a deadlock for Zinke when he entered the race last year and quickly secured the former president’s support.

“He left Montana,” the former said State Senator Albert Olszewski, one of Zinke’s four main antagonists. “He left Trump.”

Zinke still serves as the front-runner, referring to himself as a “battleship” and other candidates as “canoes,” while speaking to a reporter on the sidelines of a dinner hosted by Butte-Silver Bow County Republicans last week.

“Everyone wants to shoot at the battleship. Nobody shoots at the canoes,” he said.

Zinke denies the lie. But he doesn’t deny that his wife lives in California, and he does admit to holding fundraisers there. He said he spends “a few days a quarter” in Santa Barbara.


The Montana House district in question was created last year to accommodate the state’s growing population, and covers half of the state – from Yellowstone National Park in the north along the Rocky Mountains to the Canadian border.

The district was abolished in 1993. Montana’s Democrats lost the state’s only other seat in the House of Representatives a few years later, and in the last few election cycles, Republicans took control of every statewide office in Montana except Testers.

Trump won Montana 2020 by 16 points. The notion that Zinke left him could prove a hard sell after Trump recently held a teleconference with Zinke supporters reaffirming his support. Trump spoke for less than four minutes and spent most of the time touting his own accomplishments.

Montana Democrats have spent the past six years portraying Zinke as extreme, and he suggested that attacks on him in the GOP primary for being too liberal might help as he advances to the November election . It offers a contrast, he said, so moderate voters know he’s not “crazy.”


Still, he has a lot in common with his GOP peers. He refuses to acknowledge that President Joe Biden was legitimately elected and calls for stricter immigration policies. He is also supported by the NRA.

Democrats and his Republican critics alike have highlighted the numerous investigations Zinke underwent during his tenure at the Interior Department and the large paychecks he received while later working in the private sector.

The questions about Zinke’s behavior have not harmed his fundraising success. As of March 31, Zinke had raised $2.5 million, almost as much as all other candidates from both parties combined.

About 80% of Zinke’s campaign donations came from out-of-state donors, data from the Federal Election Commission shows.

For Republican voter Jennifer Howell, Zinke’s outside support speaks of “corruption.”

“That means he was bought by outside interests. Money talks,” she said before the Republicans’ dinner in Butte, as Zinke spoke to other local party members just yards away. “To me, that’s rude, like saying, ‘I don’t need your money, Montana. I’ll get my money elsewhere.”


Later, as dinner drew to a close, 70-year-old Barbara Jones handed Zinke a donation envelope, thanking him for having her at his table.

Despite the attacks on him, Jones said Zinke behaved “like an honorable man”. She also commended him for returning to Montana after teaming up with a Washington lobbying firm when he first left the Cabinet.

But Jones hasn’t decided who to support in the primary yet. She first wanted to know more about Olszewski and Republican candidate Mary Todd, a Kalispell pastor who claims her son was killed after refusing to help a Chinese-backed company steal US technology.

The $50 for Zinke, Jones said, was because “he paid for my dinner, so I wanted to pay him back.”


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Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. Trump ally Zinke is fighting claims he’s too ‘liberal’ for Montana

Sarah Y. Kim

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