Just hours after his narrow win in the Republican U.S. House primary race, Ryan Zinke was out kayaking on the Whitefish River, confident he will be able to unify his party and raise enough cash to beat Democratic challenger John Lewis in the November election.
Zinke, a former Navy SEAL and state senator, emerged from a tightly contested five-way race with 33 percent of the statewide vote as counting continued well into the night. The Associated Press called the race for Zinke at 1:16 a.m. Wednesday. Former state Sen. Corey Stapleton of Billings finished with 29 percent, as did state Sen. Matt Rosendale of Glendive.
Lewis claimed a decisive win over John Driscoll in the Democratic race.
In what Zinke said was the most expensive congressional primary in Montana history, he raised $1.2 million but spent more than $1 million. Lewis spent less than a quarter of what Zinke did and still has $518,000 in the bank.
“We’re going to raise a little more than we raised in the primary,” Zinke said about fundraising for the general election. “It’s never easy raising money, but our donor base was [largely] all individuals ... and nearly all of my primary donors have committed to the general election. I’m confident we’ll have the resources necessary to fight the remnants of the Baucus machine.”
It wasn’t an easy primary campaign, Zinke admitted.
“The negative ads were the most difficult because we all made a commitment to run positive campaigns,” he said. “It would have been easy to retaliate, but at the end of the day we had to show you had to run a positive campaign. Leadership counts, and leadership by example.”
Zinke came under attack by GOP leaders who alleged his conservative campaign positions didn’t match his voting record in the state Senate.
Zinke disagrees with that assertion.
“I was criticized for being a big spender, but in the Legislature we actually decreased [spending] for the first time in 22 years,” he said, noting his role as vice chairman of the Senate Finance and Claims committee.
Zinke said Rosendale was one of the first people to call him after Zinke won.
“We had a good conversation about how this [race] is about the greater purpose of fixing our country.”
Zinke said he believes the state GOP will unify around the common purpose of rebuilding and restoring “American exceptionalism.
“We may have different paths to get there but the goal is the same,” he said. “We have to focus on the important building blocks we have in common on a majority of issues.
“I had a good conversation with the leaders of the Republican party. I’m pretty confident we’ll rally around the flag. And I have to do what I say I’m going to do.”
Zinke said he felt his three-pronged message resonated with voters: getting government out of business “so America can innovate, energy independence and restoring trust and accountability.
He said the differences between him and Lewis are clear.
“I think energy independence is critical to our nation’s security,” Zinke said. “John Lewis’ No. 1 priority is preserving the North Fork Basin. I don’t disagree that the watershed is important,” but economic growth is equally important.
Oasis Petroleum’s Chief Executive Officer Thomas Nusz was Zinke’s first donor, he noted. “The first to donate to Lewis was [U.S. House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi.”
Zinke said his general election campaign focus will include improving Montana’s infrastructure — roads, utility systems and communications networks.
“Our cellphone coverage in Montana is worse than that of Iraq,” he said. “It affects business.”
Montana’s U.S. House race drew national attention, with liberal publications such as the Huffington Post on Wednesday continuing to point out controversial comments made by Zinke that he would back impeaching President Barack Obama and that he called former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “the anti-Christ.”
Both comments were taken out of context, Zinke said.
“The impeaching Obama comment was in the context of Benghazi,” he said, referring to the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi that killed four Americans. “If the president is guilty, if he had a hand in formulating and propagating a lie, then that’s an impeachable offense. The Hillary comment also was in the context with Benghazi, because we still need the truth.”
Zinke said he has emerged a stronger candidate because of the primary sparring. Now it’s time to “put political rhetoric on the shelf,” he said.
“When I was a senator I put my district and state first,” Zinke said. “As a congressman I will put Montana and America first. American values closely reflect those of Montana. We’re self-reliant, honest, truthful.”
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at email@example.com.
House GOP candidate Ryan Zinke waves to passing cars and voters outside the Flathead County Fairgrounds on Tuesday in Kalispell. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)