Montana’s freshman congressman hasn’t shied away from the national spotlight during his brief tenure in Washington, D.C.
In the past year, Republican Ryan Zinke has weighed the possibilities of being both Speaker of the House and a running mate for GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Zinke said both positions are about leadership and service, two themes the former Navy SEAL Commander is stressing now that he’s running for re-election as Montana’s sole representative. He attributed his national presence to the fact that he is the only U.S. Representative with more than a million people in his district.
“We need a strong voice in the House, because we only have one,” said the 54-year-old Whitefish native. “I work for the people who voted for me, who didn’t vote for me, who will never vote for me. We all rise and fall on the same tide.”
That tide, according to Zinke, is headed in the wrong direction. Zinke said that Democrats like President Barack Obama are pushing a “one-size-fits-all” approach to governing, something he said doesn’t work for Montana.
He said his approach is to focus on what will work for Montanans, highlighting issues like more balanced forest management and more extensive screening of refugees from Iraq and Syria during the campaign.
The issue of whether or not to accept immigrants fleeing violence overseas has become contentious in both state and federal politics and Zinke hasn’t hesitated to enter the fray. He co-sponsored the SAFE Act, which adds an FBI background check for anyone seeking asylum in the United States to those already conducted by the Department of Homeland Security, and he urged Montana to be wary of current resettlement efforts.
It is a continuation of the fairly conservative politics that he pledged he would pursue when he first ran for Congress in 2014. And, according to Bowen Greenwood, communications director for the Montana Family Foundation and former state GOP executive director, his positions fall in line with representing a rural, historically conservative state.
“I think he’s voted right pretty much every time,” said Greenwood, citing Zinke’s 2015 vote to defund Planned Parenthood and his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. “We feel like, on our issues, he’s on the right side.”
Democrats are quick to disagree, arguing that during his two years in Washington, Zinke has spent more time pursuing media attention than developing a record that helps Montanans. They’ve backed superintendent of public instruction Denise Juneau, who would be Montana’s first Native American representative. Democrats have attacked Zinke’s record opposing the minimum wage and pay equity for women, with Nancy Keenan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, saying his voting record “shows he is more interested in protecting corporate interests than Montana consumers.”
But, according to some political observers, it is Zinke’s choice to insert himself into presidential politics that posed some of the most difficult challenges for the congressman.
Even as the GOP establishment debated whether to support Donald Trump as the party’s nominee, Zinke threw his weight behind the divisive candidate. Back in May he appeared on Fox News to express his support for Trump and tweeted, “We need a Commander in Chief who puts troops first & that’s @realDonaldTrump — Today I’m endorsing Trump for President of the United States.”
That complicated Zinke’s run for re-election, said nine-term Congressman Pat Williams, the last Montana Democrat to serve as a U.S. Representative.
“The independent vote in Montana is very leery of Trump… I think the large independent vote will favor Denise [Juneau],” Williams said. “Trump is going to cause great, angry debates within the structure of the Republican Party.”
Since Trump became the GOP’s official nominee, Zinke has focused less on his support of Trump and more on railing against the Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“I certainly do not agree with Mr. Trump on a lot of issues,” Zinke said. “But Secretary Clinton lied to the American people on multiple occasions, and the number of lies just keeps going. America is upset over the lack of transparency, and to a degree Mr. Trump is a reflection of that widespread anti-Washington rhetoric. I think we need to shake it up.”
Even some Trump’s most vocal Republican critics, like former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, acknowledge that Zinke has few other choices than to align with the nominee. However, Weber added that backing Trump does not necessarily mean Zinke will push the hard-line immigration and trade policies Trump has proposed.
“Particularly in the House, they have a well-defined agenda that Speaker [Paul] Ryan has led them in creating,” Weber said. “Regardless of what they think of Donald Trump, they know nobody will sign that agenda into law aside from him. They have to follow the Speaker’s lead.”
Despite his public interest in higher-profile national positions, Zinke has focused on keeping his job as Montana’s lone member of Congress.
“My interest at heart is supporting Montana,” he said. “If you’re not in it for Montana first, you should never file for the job.”