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On a typical day in Washington D.C., Montana U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke gets up around 5:30 a.m. and clears his mind with a five-mile jog around the capitol complex. If he’s feeling “froggy” he might go further, around the Lincoln Memorial.

Zinke rents a small apartment in D.C., with a roommate, about a mile from the capitol. By 8 a.m., he’s had coffee, skipped breakfast, and walked to his office in the Cannon Building.

“My father’s favorite part of the day was just as the sun comes up, and I think I inherited that,” Zinke said.

Zinke’s father was a plumber but went back to college and studied drafting at Montana State University, Zinke explained during a drive through the Bozeman trailer park where he spent the first few years of his life.

His father was an influential figure for him and it was a blow when he died in 2004, crashing his 1952 split-tail Beachcraft Bonanza airplane. Cancer took his mother months later. His parents were divorced.

After he was elected in 2014, Zinke’s wife Lola initially moved to Washington with him, but with their youngest son on the verge of graduating high school, she chose to stay in Whitefish.

His oldest son is studying at the University of Montana and his daughter is, like he was, in the Navy (and married to a Navy SEAL). The kids are in the back of Congressman Zinke’s mind when he discusses national security, one of his favorite topics, with other members of the House Armed Services Committee.

The number of veterans in Congress has dwindled since its peak in 1971, so his record as a retired Navy SEAL means some measure of clout with the large committee.

“(My son-in-law) just came back from deployment. What I worry about is making sure they have the right equipment, the right training, and most importantly in some cases the right rules of engagement that win decisively,” Zinke told the Chronicle last week.

“Not only was I a former field commander but also I’m a father. People, I think, find it somewhat shocking that I’m probably the last person that wants to go to war because I’ve seen it but also because I’m a father. You would never wish that on anyone. But then if we have to go to war, you go to war to win.”

Zinke hasn’t finished his first 2-year term but filed for a second last week.

“I’ve always put Montana ahead of politics. I am unequaled in my love for country and for Montana,” the 54-year-old Republican from Whitefish said. “My decision matrix is simple: support and defend the Constitution, promote economic freedom and prosperity, and strong national defense to include our borders. That’s what Congress should be focusing on.”

That’s why he thinks Montanans should send him back. His chances of re-election are apparently good, according to the widely respected Cook Political Report. Based on Montana’s partisan voting index, Cook is calling Zinke’s seat solidly Republican. And well-funded incumbents are difficult to oust.

Denise Juneau, a well-known Democrat and the current superintendent of public instruction, is challenging Zinke. Her campaign believes Zinke should spend more time working for Montanans and less time promoting himself.

“Montana only has one vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. One voice for one million residents. And right now, Congressman Zinke is not working for our state, for our families, or for our future,” Juneau’s campaign manager Lauren Caldwell said. “He’s in it for himself. Congressman Zinke spends more time on cable TV shows and his Hollywood book deal than making sure Montanans are being heard in Washington, D.C.”

In between meetings in Bozeman this week, Zinke was reading an autobiography written with “American Sniper” author Scott McEwen. Zinke said his own book is more like a series of anecdotes from his time in the SEALs, and he was fact-checking it during his trip around the state last week, using tortoise-shell reading glasses and a pencil to make edits before he submits it to the Pentagon for review.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Juneau’s team had more to critique, finding fault with, among other things, Zinke’s votes on the national debt and women’s health and recently “wasted time” on sponsoring a bill that would require American women to register for the draft.

Those critiques rarely come up when Zinke meets with the public. He’s always smiling and friendly. When he meets someone new he always asks where they’re from before launching his pitch, which often includes the need for small business regulatory reform. He also likes to offer to write letters of recommendation.

Zinke’s bills

“I’m more influential than I should be,” Zinke said when talking about his status as a freshman representing Montana. “Montana has done a great job marketing what it is.”

Zinke has introduced 15 pieces of legislation since he went to Capitol Hill, an average number for a first-term congressman. Two have become law.

House Resolution 1522 extended the Indian coal production tax credit. It passed as part of the year-end omnibus tax bill. Zinke also introduced a bill that would have forced the VA to redefine 40 miles as 40 miles by road, not as the crow flies, for purposes of allowing veterans to choose local private health care over driving to a VA healthcare facility. The VA changed the rule internally after public pressure mounted.

His most recent bill is a Montana collaborative with Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines to repeal federal ID rules that affect the acceptability of Montana drivers licenses at airport screenings.

And Zinke was able to get Democratic support for his National Forest Collaborative Incentive Act, which has been rolled into a larger forest bill titled the Resilient Federal Forest Act. The bill passed the House in July with 19 Democrats supporting, a big step for forest reform.

Zinke sees himself as a traditional conservationist and he’s upset about the current state of forest health. Annual forest fires, he believes, are only going to get worse. The answer is for Congress to “put more scientists in the forest and less lawyers.”

“I have a deep admiration for Teddy Roosevelt. I have a deep admiration for the original concept of the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, all of which were signed by the way into law by Dick Nixon,” Zinke said.

He was a Boy Scout through high school, an important part of his development. He also had a teacher in Whitefish, Bill Schustrom, who worked in Glacier National Park and taught an environmental science course that led to Zinke’s interest and college degree in geology.

“Living in Whitefish, I’m not sure how you can’t enjoy the outdoors,” the congressman said.

Attendance

Since his first vote on Jan. 6, 2015, Zinke has missed 19 of the 813 (2.3 percent) votes taken in the House, according to data from GovTrack. That’s just slightly higher than the congressional median of 2.2 percent.

“I can tell you the votes I’ve missed are because my son was wrestling,” Zinke said, adding, “and the votes I’ve missed are procedure votes, really nothing of substance.”

GovTrack also uses congressional data to analyze House members’ ideology on a simplistic liberal-conservative spectrum. Based on the 257 bills Zinke has co-sponsored, GovTrack calls him a “rank-and-file Republican,” landing in between liberal and conservative Republicans.

Fundraising

Zinke has so far proven a strong fundraiser. He’s been able to leverage his notoriety as a Navy SEAL to that end. At the end of 2015, he reported raising $2.7 million, but has spent much of it. His cash on hand at the year-end was $743,983.

Of his 5,700 donors Zinke has reported to the Federal Election Commission, the majority are from outside Montana.

The Juneau campaign sees that as cause for concern.

“Congressman Zinke spends about 80 cents to raise one dollar,” said Caldwell of Juneau’s campaign. “That’s a smoke-and-mirrors fundraising scheme designed to fool the press in order to make him look like a stronger candidate than he actually is. Denise Juneau is backed by everyday Montanans who believe in her campaign. Congressman Zinke is bankrolled by people who every day live in some state other than Montana.”

Should Montanans be worried about their member of Congress raising money from outside the state?

Zinke says no.

“No one is going to tell me how to vote, only the citizens of Montana,” Zinke said.

“A lot of the issues we have go well beyond Montana. A lot of the issues we face are national issues. And I think nationally people want a champion,” Zinke said. “Like national security, people want someone to be on their side when it comes to immigration. People want someone to be on their side about putting American jobs first. People want someone on their side to know they’re going to champion the Constitution.”

According finance reports, Zinke has raised $1,070,628 in un-itemized donations of less than $35 from those whose donor information is not collected by the Federal Election Commission, meaning Zinke has at least 30,000 small donors.

“I do have well over 30,000 donors from all over the place,” Zinke said. “The vast majority are donors who are $100 or less, small amount donors that just want someone to champion their cause and their cause is putting America first.”

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Troy Carter can be reached at 582-2630 or tcarter@dailychronicle.com. He’s on Twitter at @cartertroy.

Zinke's reported individual contributions 2015

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Troy Carter covers politics and county government for the Chronicle.

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