A polling firm has been calling Iowa Republican voters to test [Interior Secretary Ryan] Zinke’s name recognition for a possible run, presumably in 2024. This shows that the White House sweepstakes has [sic] started very early, and that Zinke is known in D.C. as somebody with White House ambitions.
“Presumably in 2024” is an interesting qualifier. The Register doesn’t really know the operative date, and using polling data to gauge a race six years out is murkier than, for example, one occurring in two years. And it’s unclear that Zinke, a former Navy seal commander and student of military history, considers George McClellan’s attempted take down of his boss as a mistake to be avoided rather than a useful blueprint that just needs a little tweeking.
But even assuming the Register’s guess is correct, that still leaves an enormous conflict of interest between Zinke’s ambitions and his boss’ interests. Voters almost never give the presidency to the same political party three times in a row, a lesson learned by Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Gerald Ford in 1976, Al Gore in 2000, John McCain in 2008, and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
If Zinke’s farsighted enough to poll Iowa six years in advance, he’s farsighted enough to have considered that Donald Trump’s reelection in 2020 would mean almost certain doom for Zinke in the general election if he won the 2024 GOP nomination.
Of course, no one is accusing Zinke of deliberately undermining Trump, at least not yet. But conflicts of interest can blind even the well-intentioned to the consequences of their actions.
Case in point: Zinke and his wife Lola have propped up a wealthy Californian’s campaign to win Montana’s GOP senate nomination, thereby virtually guaranteeing an intraparty bloodbath in the state’s already crowded primary.
Had the Zinkes persuaded him to challenge Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) instead, the MTGOP would have a less-bloodied nominee to challenge Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) in the fall. Even more important for Trump, the odds of survival for embattled Republican congressmen in California -- and continued GOP control of the House after November -- would have improved dramatically.
Instead, GOP House candidates in California are in serious jeopardy because there will be no GOP senate candidate on California ballots in November. Feinstein will likely be challenged in November by another Democrat. And a similar shutout is shaping up in the state’s gubernatorial race, with the state’s Democratic lieutenant governor and a former Democratic mayor of Los Angeles likely being voters’ only choices for governor. This is the result of (1) California’s “top-two” primary system in which, as the name implies, the two candidates receiving the most votes in the primary, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the general election and (2) the GOP’s collapse at the state level in post-Reagan California.
Republicans are important nationally here [in California] because they’re defending six or seven House races that Republicans need to keep control of the House. Turnout in a primary election is driven by the top of the ticket, not by some congressman that most people don’t know.
Republicans will lose the House if Democrats can flip 24 seats in November. Since the end of World War II, the party controlling the White House has lost an average of 26 House seats in midterm elections.
All of this means that control of the House next year may well be decided by a handful of GOP-held House districts in California which, according to the Los Angeles Times, are being specially targeted by Democrats anticipating an anti-Trump tsunami in November. The Times issues a monthly report to “track the California races that could flip the House.” In 2016, seven Republican House members won in districts that also voted for Hillary. Incumbents are retiring in two of those districts, while the incumbent in a third district is being investigated by a federal grand jury for campaign corruption.
The last thing CAGOP House candidates need is a depressed turnout of their voters resulting from the party being shut out of top-of-the-ticket races.
What they needed instead was a GOP senate candidate at the top of California ballots in November to gin up turnout. A gazillionaire who could pay the king’s ransom needed to put up ads throughout the state. A NeverTrumper who could appeal to moderate Republicans, independents, and the handful of sane Democrats remaining in one of the most anti-Trump states in the nation. Someone with humble roots and, even better, a record as a combat veteran.
As it turns out, there was such a candidate. But, because of the Zinkes’ encouragement, he’s running in Montana.
Feinstein v. Downing: The Senate Race That Might Have Been
Troy Downing was raised by a single mother who worked as a grocery clerk in San Bernadino County, California. He studied computer science at New York University, then hit pay dirt when he developed a web-based calendar system that merged with Yahoo! in 1998.
Shortly after 9/11, Downing enlisted in the Air Force and served two tours in Afghanistan rescuing downed pilots. He later purchased a vineyard near the town of Fallbrook, California. Downing recently received this 2015 puff piece from his hometown press:
Fallbrook area residents have undoubtedly seen Troy Downing and his family members around town – at local schools or a 4-H event showing animals, but they would never suspect that Downing played a major role in revolutionizing their world. One might expect that a family as successful as the Downings would live somewhere more posh – but they chose the same town the rest of us did – Fallbrook….One of his greatest passions is the ongoing cultivation of his home vineyard which now boasts 2,000 vines.
The article also notes that Downing owns and pilots Russian-built fighter jets.
With a record as a combat veteran, Yahoo! money up the wazoo, ties to California’s liberal hi-tech and wine industries, and NeverTrump bona fides, Downing was an ideal moderate to challenge California’s 84 year-old senior senator, whose best days as a candidate are well behind her, as even Democrats recognize. At their state convention last month, California Democrats refused to endorse Feinstein, a San Francisco pol and a gay rights icon ever since she tried to take the pulse of a mortally wounded Harvey Milk four decades ago. Now, she’s considered too milquetoast, and too decrepit, to inspire her ever-leftward drifting party.
Downing would have had the narrative, and money, to run a Republican remake of Robert Redford’s The Candidate against an opponent whose campaign “rallies,” if that’s the right word, will look like scenes from Weekend at Bernie’s.
Could Downing have pulled it off? It would have been an uphill climb. Californians have not elected a Republican senator in 30 years.
At the very least, however, Downing would have had the resources needed to survive California’s top-two primary and qualify for the November ballot. This would have forced Democrats to spend money getting Feinstein and her oxygen tank across the finish line - money now freed up for Democratic senate candidates in other states. And a Downing California candidacy would have drawn thousands of additional Republicans to the polls in November, thereby boosting the GOP’s odds of holding the California seats critical to continued GOP control of the House.
Criminal Charges Derail a California Winemaker’s Montana Makeover
None of this will happen, however, because Downing retreated from a blue state Hillary won by 30 points in order to answer the siren call of a red state she lost by 20. This frolic wouldn’t have gone anywhere without support from Zinke, thereby giving Downing’s campaign a Montana seal of approval it couldn’t have otherwise obtained.
Lola Zinke is Downing’s campaign manager – though what, exactly, she manages from her Santa Barbara home is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the campaign ads, which are now ubiquitous throughout Montana (pro tip: if all of a candidate’s senate ads proclaim him to be a state resident, he probably isn’t). California Downing didn’t care for the Trump agenda and declared Trump to be “either a liar or an idiot,” but Montana Downing is all in, and his ads, such as this one, are meant to convince Trump voters that he always has been.
Alas, a jury may soon determine that the road from NeverTrump Californian to cuck-slaying Montanan was paved with something other than good intentions. In July 2017, Montana prosecutors charged Downing with 8 counts of fraudulently purchasing resident hunting licenses as a non-resident between 2011 and 2016. According to Downing, “the liberal Montana FWP deep state is on a witch hunt,” an allegation that has a couple of obvious flaws. The first is the prosecutor: an elected Republican. The second is the evidence. Downing filed non-resident tax returns in Montana during the time he purchased Montana-resident hunting licenses, all while receiving a tax deduction in California by declaring his Fallbrook vineyard as his primary residence. Additionally, Downing’s wife purchased non-resident fishing licenses at the time, apparently not having gotten the memo regarding Troy’s Montana makeover. And Downing’s joining the Fallbrook Chamber of Commerce in May 2017, a month before declaring his Montana Senate candidacy, probably won’t help, either.
Downing has no chance of ever ousting Tester. But he has the money to wreak havoc during the remainder of the primary and a campaign manager with an axe to grind. Matt Rosendale, the current frontrunner in Montana’s senate race, lost to Ryan Zinke in Montana’s contentious 2014 congressional primary. When Rosendale ran for State Auditor in 2016, Lola Zinke contributed $100 to his Democratic opponent. She’s now got a lot more than $100 to finance whatever additional payback she fancies.
A Problem For Trump With No Easy Solution
So why are the Zinkes helping perpetrate Downing’s charade upon Montanans? After all, they’re clearly undermining Trump’s interests. Besides hurting the MTGOPs effort to give Trump an extra vote in the Senate, Downing’s eschewing a California senate run increases the odds of the GOP losing the House. This would spell the end of Trump’s agenda, the beginning of unlimited, debilitating investigations of the Trump Administration, and the prospect of impeachment.
Viewed through the prism of his presidential aspirations, however, Zinke’s support of Downing’s Montana campaign makes perfect sense. The Zinkes were remarkably creative at fundraising long before Trump tapped Ryan for Interior. And when that appointment forced Ryan out of the fundraising game because of the Hatch Act, the Zinkes found a workaround by having Lola “manage” the campaign of an unknown “Montana” candidate – a job that includes contacting contributors.
That trick wouldn’t have worked if Downing had run in California, since Zinke is almost as toxic there as Trump is. Instead, the Zinkes are supporting a Downing campaign in Montana in which they’ve become indispensible. Now they’re owed a favor by a hi-tech founder who not only flies fighter jets but is wealthy enough to buy fighter jets.
White House hopefuls need to accumulate wealthy campaign bundlers. Like Downing, for example.
None of this helps Trump. When Iowa is a bigger obsession for the Interior Secretary than for the Agriculture Secretary, a president with low approval ratings seeking re-election faces diminished loyalty – and possibly something much worse. Trump’s usual solution for personnel troubles – termination by tweet – might be ill-advised. A fired cabinet secretary with a chip on his shoulder, favorable Iowa polling, bundlers, and unlimited ego could become the next McClellan, especially if a recession hits soon, in which case Trump might not be as lucky in 2020 as Lincoln was in 1864.
A more recent president offered a solution for these kinds of problems, and phrased it in terms Trump can understand: “Better to have them inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.” That kind of reasoning might explain why one of the most ethically challenged members of the Administration is likely to stay, at least for now, whether Trump likes him or not.