Ryan Zinke

Ryan Zinke

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Recent campaign finance reports submitted by Republican congressional candidate Ryan Zinke and a super PAC that he founded show at least six businesses are working for both Zinke and the super PAC.

And on eight occasions, the Zinke campaign and Special Operations for America (SOFA) PAC paid those companies on the same day, according to the reports.

For example, on May 15, Zinke’s campaign paid $28,000 to Century Data Mailing Services for postage. The same day, SOFA PAC paid Century $31,000 for direct mail and postage.

Federal elections law bans coordination between candidates like Zinke and independent groups like SOFA PAC because super PACs have no donation cap, while candidates do.

Zinke spokeswoman Shelby DeMars strongly denied that the candidate’s campaign and the super PAC are working together.

“There is no coordination, period,” DeMars said.

Zinke founded SOFA PAC in 2012 to help Republican Mitt Romney’s candidacy for president. He resigned as chairman of the super PAC weeks before announcing his candidacy to replace Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, who is running for the U.S. Senate against Democratic Sen. John Walsh.

Since then, SOFA PAC has spent $175,000 supporting Zinke, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center, a political watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., said the fact that Zinke’s campaign and the super PAC use the same companies does not mean they are illegally coordinating.

“The vendor can, for example, use a firewall among its employees to ensure that no information is passed from the candidate to the super PAC,” Ryan said. “The use of a common vendor only amounts to illegal coordination between a candidate and a super PAC if the vendor passes information regarding the candidate’s campaign plans, needs, et cetera to the super PAC.”

In March, the Campaign Legal Center and the organization Democracy 21 filed Federal Election Commission complaints against Zinke, alleging illegal coordination with the SOFA PAC.

The FEC would not comment on the issue, and SOFA PAC could not be reached for comment.

Both Zinke’s campaign and SOFA PAC use Base Connect, a national organization that raises money for conservative candidates and PACs. Besides raising money, Base Connect hires other vendors - including Century Mailing, which it owns - to handle such services as printing and mailing for campaigns. While Base Connect works with those other companies, Zinke’s campaign and SOFA PAC paid the bills.

A spokesman for Base Connect would not comment Thursday on its current clients or campaigns.

Zinke also recently expanded his traditional campaign fundraising with a new committee.

On July 23, Zinke registered a joint fundraising committee under the name Zinke Victory Fund.

Increasingly common, joint committees join political committees and candidates to share operations and contributions. There are 424 joint fundraising committees in the current election cycle.

Zinke’s new committee fuses his standard campaign committee with the Montana Republican State Central Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Montana State University political scientist David Parker said joint committees are a convenience to mega donors and fundraising efforts, allowing Zinke to receive larger donations.

“I suspect Zinke is trying to tap into the big dollar donors with this move,” he said.

Joint committees allow donors to give one large contribution instead of smaller, separate amounts. Donors can give the Zinke Victory Fund a check for up to $45,000 — $2,600 for his campaign, $10,000 for the state party and $32,400 for the national committee.

Zinke’s Democratic opponent John Lewis also has a joint committee — the Big Sky Victory Fund — with Walsh. Their committee is registered in Missoula, is not linked to a state or national party and can take contributions up to $5,200.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has received $12.4 million from joint committees this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This aids them in taking money from candidates in non-competitive districts and using it in closer races, Parker said.

“More broadly speaking, it is an example of candidates responding to the broader resource environment,” said Parker. “They need money to get messages out, so they do what it takes under existing regulations to get it.”

Zinke has raised $1.5 million and on June 30 had $97,306 left. Lewis has raised $1.03 million and had $622,711 cash on hand, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

Most of Zinke’s contributions, $741,000, came from outside the state. His FEC reports show $291,000 coming from Montana donors. Lewis’ campaign has taken $276,501 in individual contributions from outside the state and $399,660 from Montanans. Both campaigns have excepted some donations without listing the origin with the FEC.

Zinke and Lewis are running against Libertarian Mike Fellows for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat. Fellows has not filed finance reports with the FEC.

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

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Troy Carter covers politics and county government for the Chronicle.

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