HELENA — The news website Politico Friday dove into the race for Montana’s new congressional seat, running a lengthy piece suggesting that Republican Ryan Zinke – a leading candidate in the contest – may be only a part-time resident of Montana.
The story cited recent Instagram posts by his wife of the family’s activity at or near her southern California property and comments from at least two people who said Zinke didn’t appear to be living full-time at his Whitefish home – including his son’s girlfriend.
The Zinke campaign said the insinuations are false, and that he lives full-time in Whitefish, which is his hometown.
The campaign also said Politico refused to print his full response to their story and inquiries, and that his son’s girlfriend, Nikita Packard, denies that she said anything as described in the article.
“This is just more political fiction written by Politico,” it said in its response. “Politico never cared about reporting the truth, only spreading lies about Ryan Zinke and his wife and children to damage the Trump presidency and get clicks.”
The campaign said Zinke travels often, for business and pleasure, and that it’s not uncommon for him not to be home in Whitefish at times.
“Everyone knows Lola (Zinke’s wife) has a business and property in Santa Barbara that she needs to tend to,” said a campaign spokeswoman.
Yet Zinke’s opponent in the Republican primary for the congressional seat – former state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell – jumped into the fray as well Friday, saying he doesn’t believe Zinke is a full-time Montana resident.
“After resigning as the secretary of the Interior, he didn’t come back to Montana, he was not in Whitefish,” Olszewski told MTN News. “He lived (in California) with his family and he’s a full-time California resident. He didn’t even try to come back to Montana until there was an opening in a congressional race.”
Zinke, who served as Montana’s sole congressman from 2015 to early 2017, was appointed by Trump as U.S. Interior secretary in 2017. He held that post until resigning in early 2019, in the wake of several investigations into alleged unethical behavior.
Zinke has said the accusations against him are politically motivated and that no investigation has confirmed them.
Montana is getting an additional congressional seat for 2022, increasing its total to two seats, and Zinke announced earlier this year that he will run in the new district.
Olszewski is the only other Republican in the race so far. Three Democrats are running for the seat and a fourth is considering it.
Zinke is the best-known candidate in the race and, in past races, has shown himself to be a prodigal fundraiser. He hasn’t yet released his fundraising totals for this year. His first campaign-finance report is due Oct. 15.
Zinke’s residence has been an issue occasionally in his prior campaigns, usually brought up by opponents suggesting that he spends more time in Santa Barbara, California, than Whitefish.
He has deflected those suggestions by saying he lives in Whitefish, at the home fronted by a sign for the Snowfrog Inn – a bed-and-breakfast that he had once proposed but didn’t materialize.
Zinke, a retired U.S. Navy Seal, entered politics in 2008, winning a state Senate seat representing Whitefish and parts of Flathead County. He ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2012 and then won Montana’s congressional seat in 2014. He was re-elected in 2016 before Trump tapped him to be Interior secretary.