BUTTE, Mont. – When Republican Ryan Zinke first ran for Congress, the former Navy SEAL faced false accusations amplified by Democrats that his military career had ended in disgrace.
After winning in 2014 and two years later getting picked as President Donald Trump's interior secretary, Zinke is seeking a return to Congress and facing a near-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 — failing to mention two Bronze Stars that Zinke earned in Iraq — and of being demoted, which his service records refute.
It’s part of a broad campaign by some Republicans leading up to the state's June 7 primary to thwart Zinke's bid for a political comeback and advance a more conservative candidate for the general election.
The political dynamics reflect the sharp right turn the GOP has taken since Trump barnstormed across Montana's electoral scene with repeated visits during the 2018 election in a failed attempt to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.
Zinke’s status as a former Trump Cabinet member is simply not enough anymore for some in his party. They say he’s too liberal and too soft on guns and didn’t do enough to build Trump’s envisioned wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
This month came a disclosure from Politico that Zinke’s wife, Lolita, designated her family's California home as her primary residence. That boosted long-standing suspicions that Zinke spends most of his time outside Montana.
His opponents see a chance to make inroads with Trump voters, who seemed a lock for Zinke when he entered the race last year and quickly secured the former president’s endorsement.
“He quit Montana,” said former state Sen. Albert Olszewski, one of Zinke’s four primary opponents. “He quit Trump.”
Zinke is still acting as the front-runner, referring to himself as the “battleship” and other candidates as “canoes” while speaking to a reporter on the sidelines of a dinner last week hosted by Butte-Silver Bow County Republicans.
“Everybody wants to shoot at the battleship. Nobody shoots at the canoes,” he said.
Zinke denies lying. But he doesn't deny that his wife is a California resident, and he acknowledges holding fundraisers there. He said he spends “a couple days a quarter” in Santa Barbara.
The Montana House district that's at stake was created last year to account for the state's growing population and covers half the state — from Yellowstone National Park, north along the spine of the Rocky Mountains, to the Canadian border.
The district had been eliminated in 1993. Montana Democrats lost the state's only other House seat a few years later, and over the last several election cycles, Republicans took control of every statewide office in Montana except Tester’s.
Trump won Montana in 2020 with a 16-point advantage. The notion that Zinke quit him could prove hard to sell after Trump held a recent telerally with Zinke supporters reiterating his support. Trump spoke less than four minutes and spent most of the time touting his own accomplishments.
Montana Democrats spent the past six years painting Zinke as extreme, and he suggested the attacks on him in the GOP primary for being too liberal could help if he advances to the November election. It offers a contrast, he said, so moderate voters know he's not “crazy."
Still, he's got much in common with his fellow GOP candidates. He's refused to acknowledge that President Joe Biden was legitimately elected and has called for harsher immigration policies. He's also backed by the National Rifle Association.
Democrats and his Republican detractors alike have highlighted the numerous investigations Zinke came under while at the Interior Department and the large paychecks he received when he later worked in the private sector.
The questions surrounding Zinke’s conduct haven’t put a dent in his fundraising success. Through 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 contributions came from out-of-state donors, Federal Election Commission data shows.
For Republican voter Jennifer Howell, Zinke’s outside support “speaks of corruption.”
“That means he's bought by outside interests. Money talks,” she said before the Republican dinner in Butte, as Zinke spoke with other local members of the party just a few feet away. “To me, that's rude in your face, like saying, 'I don't need your money, Montana. I'll get my money elsewhere.'"
Later, as the dinner drew to a close, 70-year-old Barbara Jones passed a donation envelope to Zinke and thanked him for hosting her at his table.
Despite the attacks on him, Jones said Zinke had behaved “like an honorable man.” She also praised him for returning to Montana after linking up with a Washington lobbying firm when he first left the Cabinet.
But Jones hasn’t decided whom to support in the primary. She first wanted to learn more about Olszewski and Republican candidate Mary Todd, a pastor from Kalispell who contends her son was killed after refusing to help a Chinese-backed firm steal U.S. technology. Also on the Republican ballot are contractor Mitch Heuer, of Whitefish, and Missoula teacher Matt Jette.
The $50 for Zinke, Jones said, was because "he paid for my dinner, so I wanted to pay him back.”
Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP.