Ex-Rep. Ryan Zinke eyes new House seat in Montana

Republican faced investigations as Interior secretary under Trump

Former GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke, who served as Interior secretary in the Trump administration, is eyeing the new House seat Montana will get in the next Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke, who served as Interior secretary in the Trump administration, is eyeing the new House seat Montana will get in the next Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 29, 2021 at 4:50pm

Corrected 5:11 p.m. | Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke formed a committee Thursday to raise money to run for a House seat in Montana that will be created based on new census data released this week

Zinke won two terms representing the state’s current at-large district before leaving to join the Trump administration in 2017. 

He was the first Montanan to serve in a presidential Cabinet, but he resigned in the face of ethics investigations after serving less than two years. In all, the former secretary came under at least 15 different investigations before leaving in January 2019.

Paperwork filed with the Federal Election Commission indicates that the Helena-based campaign committee, Zinke for Congress, is geared toward fundraising for what will become Montana’s 2nd District. Boundaries for that seat will be drawn later this year, after more detailed census data is released. 

Lorna Kuney, who was listed as the committee treasurer and records custodian on the FEC paperwork, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

A Republican strategist involved in House races said it is not too early to lay the groundwork for a campaign, but other candidates are likely waiting to find out more information about where and how competitive the new district will be. 

Democrats shut out in 2020

Despite Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock spending $49 million last fall on a run for Senate, he and his party’s House candidate were shut out, and Montana voters went for President Donald Trump over Joe Biden, 57 percent to 41 percent. 

At least one of the two newly drawn seats is expected to be solid GOP territory in 2022. But there’s a possibility the new seat could be competitive, depending on how the boundaries are drawn by an independent commission, appointed mostly by state lawmakers.

[How states gaining seats will draw their new House maps]

It is also unclear whether Montanans will penalize Zinke for his record at the Interior Department.

In October 2018, about two months before Zinke left his post, the department’s inspector general referred an inquiry it had launched into Zinke’s conduct to the Justice Department.

That probe centered on a land agreement Zinke reached with an executive of oil field services giant Hallibutron in Whitefish, Mont., his hometown.

Also that October, the inspector general found that Zinke broke federal rules by allowing family members to travel with him in government vehicles. Zinke also asked if his wife, Lola, could join the department as a volunteer, the IG said in a report.

“He denied that his intention in making this request was so that his wife could travel with him in an official capacity, which would have eliminated the requirement to reimburse the Government for her travel,” the report said. “Ultimately, the employees advised him that making her a volunteer could be perceived negatively, and she did not become one.”

The inspector general also found that Zinke took a security detail with him on a vacation to Greece and Turkey, costing taxpayers $25,000.

In April 2018, the IG cleared Zinke of misconduct in connection with travel arrangements, including on chartered and military planes.

A former Navy SEAL, Zinke showed up to his first day of work as secretary on a horse. He pushed policies to relax fossil fuel extraction and supported shrinking the boundaries of two national monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Citing an inspector general report, House Democrats said the decision to shrink the size of those monuments was predetermined to benefit fossil fuel and mining interests.

Zinke, whom the Senate confirmed by a 68-31 vote in March 2017, frequently used the phrase “energy dominance” to describe his efforts at the department to ease environmental regulations, and he backed a Trump administration move to allow offshore oil-and-gas drilling off every coastal state in the country, including in Florida, despite bipartisan opposition.

Trump issued a moratorium in August last year to freeze oil and gas drilling in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. 

The Interior Department unveiled Zinke’s official portrait in December. It shows him on horseback and is based on a photo taken when he visited Bears Ears in 2017.

This report has been revised to reflect the number of House terms Zinke won.