When Ryan Zinke resigned from former President Donald Trump’s Cabinet in 2018, he took with him at least 18 federal ethics inquiries, a hefty pile of legal fees and Trump’s lasting loyalty.
He’s now putting that loyalty to use while running in Montana’s newly created second congressional district—but his opponents from both sides of the aisle don’t intend to let voters forget the rest.
Republican candidate Dr. Al Olszewski has called Zinke “one of the most corrupt persons in Washington” and a “dishonest man.” Democratic candidate Monica Tranel, has called for Zinke to “drop out of this race and stop embarrassing our state.”
Tom Winter, another Democratic candidate, told The Daily Beast the ethics issues are a part of a bigger picture that he hopes voters will tune into. “He’s still being investigated for what he did in federal office, and he had to resign from the Trump administration because of it in disgrace.”
“And even if they’re Trump voters, as many people are, they don’t like cheaters, liars or people that take advantage of us. And that context matters more,” he said.
At the root of their criticisms is Zinke’s tenure as secretary of the interior, where he was a stalwart for Trump’s agenda to expand domestic energy production and oversaw huge rollbacks to Obama-era environmental policy. But as ethics controversies amassed and some of his cases were referred to the Justice Department, the White House reportedly pressured Zinke to exit by the end of 2018 or be fired.
Yet publicly, the president continuously stood by Zinke as he was investigated for allegedly retaliating against a whistleblower, misusing department resources and spending $139,000 on replacing three sets of doors, among other head-scratching moves. When Zinke announced he was leaving the administration because he could no longer justify spending thousands to defend himself against the claims, Trump thanked him for his service.
In the time between Zinke’s departure and his 2021 announcement of his plan to re-run for Congress, the love has not faded between the two allies. Trump swiftly issued an endorsement of Zinke’s campaign—which Zinke brandished on his campaign site and social media for all to see.
“Under Ryan Zinke’s leadership at the Department of the Interior, the U.S. achieved Energy Dominance… He will be a strong leader for the great Patriots of Montana. Ryan has my Complete and Total Endorsement for Congress!” the former president wrote.
That endorsement has not deterred Mary Todd, a Republican small-business owner also seeking the seat. A Trump supporter who is running on an “America First” platform, Todd said Zinke isn’t the best fit for the job. Montanans who need a “patriot” to represent them in Congress—and someone “who won’t leave office after they’ve been elected,” as Zinke did, after he was tapped for his administration job.
“He’s been in office. He has a history of things that he has done that are very questionable,” she told The Daily Beast, also pointing to concerns about Zinke’s record on abortion, which has been a point of contention in his previous races. The 2022 Montana primary is slated for June 7.
Zinke, for his part, has dubbed the ethics scandals that plagued his tenure as politically motivated attacks—but the investigations that followed have suggested otherwise. Just this February, a report released by the Interior’s inspector general said Zinke misused his position as secretary to advance a commercial project in his Montana hometown. Watchdogs say Trump appointees at the Justice Department also prolonged the investigations into Zinke and others before their departures.
On a conservative podcast in August, Zinke suggested his time at the Interior Department was plagued by employees who actively worked against him. “These people wanted to stop us from day one… It became about Ryan Zinke and not the Interior,” he said.
Montana state Sen. Mike Cuffe (R) described Zinke as a friend but said he won’t endorse in the race on account of his friendship with fellow Republican competitor Olszewski. However, he agreed Zinke likely was a target at Interior and doubted the investigations would be a “tipping-point factor” for voters.
“I think people are going to see there’s a lot of politics involved in that,” he said.
Zinke’s lasting allies in Washington seem to agree. Montana Sen. Steve Daines (R) earlier this month attended a Zinke campaign event, as chronicled on Zinke’s Instagram. Republican Sen. Tim Scott (SC) issued an endorsement this month as well.
In the House, the former congressman still has friends, as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the National Republican Congressional Committee have already put Zinke on their list of promising candidates for 2022. Those sorts of endorsements provide cash and resources that competitive candidates need—which only complements Zinke’s reputation as a prolific fundraiser.
Beyond his misadventures in Washington, his opponents are also raising questions that are closer to home—like where he physically resides.
After Zinke initially departed Trumpworld in 2018, he was free to return to Montana and re-immerse himself in the Big Sky community. But some patrons of Whitefish, where Zinke’s listed as living on his campaign filing, say they don’t see him around much. It’s not the first time residents are noticing his absence—or that opposing candidates are trying to use it against him.
Zinke is undeniably from Montana. He was born in Bozeman. He went to Whitefish High School, as did his parents and his own children. He got his start in politics more than a decade ago by being elected to the Montana Senate.
But he and his wife, Lolita, have spent significant time hopping between Montana and their home in Santa Barbara, California, over the years. The weather is warmer and palm trees abound—but to some, that escape is a copout.
His main Montana residence was also at one point poised to become a bed and breakfast, dubbed the Snowfrog Inn, which has added to the perception that he’s a part-timer. A sign advertising the Snowfrog Inn is still posted out front of the home, according to Winter, who posted a video of himself outside the Inn in December.
Winter campaign this month launched an ad in the local paper that in letters reads: “Ryan Zinke Doesn’t Even Live In Montana.” Winter told The Daily Beast, “This is a tiny town he claims to live in. We know he’s not there.”
Zinke’s campaign did not respond to a request for an interview.
Democrats’ efforts to trump Zinke aren’t necessarily exercises in futility. Montana is a purple state, although it’s trended Republican in recent years. Statewide, Daines serves as a Republican alongside Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. Until 2020, Montana was led by Democratic governors for more than a decade, but that voters opted for Republican Greg Gianforte, who once body slammed a reporter, to take the reins.
Montana voters have also faced a seachange in political priorities over the past few years, with housing shortages and rising property taxes battering locals as now-remote workers from western cities trickle in.
Tester says he wasn’t surprised to see Zinke enter the race—but he’s still confident about Democrats’ chances in the new Western seat. “You gotta work hard. They can win it,” he told The Daily Beast.
The new western congressional district has a 10-point lean toward Republicans, according to FiveThirtyEight. Montana overall went to Trump by more than 16 points in 2020.
The outcome of Zinke’s run could be a test for the viability of Trump administration alums re-entering the political arena. Other Trump administration departees like former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Trump aide Max Miller are running for office in their respective home states, betting that their former-boss will lift them up among the faithful.
The impact of Trump’s endorsements is also being tested this primary season. In 2020, Trump had a strong record of endorsing candidates that ultimately won their primary bids. But the 2022 cycle will be the first major round of elections since the former president left office—with a second impeachment and an insurrection now adding to his record.
Zinke’s opponents continue to hope the weight of his political woes will hold him back.
“Ryan’s Zinke is not a Republican. He’s just a grifter. That’s all,” Winter said.