In 2012, former Montana State Senator Ryan Zinke (R) founded Special Operations For America, a right-wing super PAC focused on Swift Boat-style attacks on President Obama’s foreign policy. Two years later, Zinke is running for his state’s at-large U.S. House seat — using tens of thousands of the dollars from the super PAC he until-recently ran.
Because super PACs are supposed to be independent of any political candidate or party, they are free to raise unlimited sums of money from individuals and corporations. Under these lax rules, Zinke and his Special Operations For America (SOFA) raised more than $400,000 in 2012 and 2013 — including $15,000 donations from Clayton Williams Energy (the Texas oil company run by notorious rape-defender Clayton Williams Jr.) and Florida developer Sandestin Investments, $12,500 from former Nixon administration U.S. Attorney Robert W. Rust, $10,000 checks from mortgage acquisition magnate Kenneth Cohen and Texas oil investor Edwin Hagerty, and several $5,000 donations. The super PAC spent some of this money on ads attacking President Obama for for showing the same respect to foreign leaders that Republican presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush have shown.
On September 30, 2013, Zinke announced he would step down from his position as chairman of Special Operations for America. Days later, the group posted a “Draft Zinke” message encouraging its founder to run for Congress. A day later, Zinke announced an exploratory committee.
On December 2, SOFA launched a radio campaign in support of Zinke’s candidacy for the open Congressional seat. The ad boasted that Zinke is a former Navy Seal commander who would “stop Obamacare, protect our right to bear arms, and fight to make America energy independent,” but makes no mention of the fact that he founded the group. Last month, the group began to run TV ads encouraging Montanans to elect Zinke. To date, the group has spent more than $70,000, in a state with relatively cheap airtime.
While Zinke’s official campaign is legally prohibited from accepting any corporate donations or checks for more than $2,600 per person, the unrestricted money he raised for what used to be his own super PAC is now going to help elect him. While his own campaign reported spending about $100,000 in the first three months of its existence, it has already received nearly as much in “independent” support from SOFA.
In his 5 to 4 majority opinion in the Citizens United case, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that because those running outside ads are not connected with the candidates themselves, “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” But by organizing and raising money for the same super PAC that is now spending heavily to elect him, Zinke shows just how little distinction there really is between candidates and their allied “outside” groups.
Mary Boyle, vice president for communications for Common Cause, told ThinkProgress that this loophole is “crazy.” She noted that Zinke “essentially got a two-year head start fundraising for his campaign, soliciting unlimited donations that he could not ask for as a candidate, and now that money is being used to support him,” adding that this method of circumvention “just doesn’t pass the straight-face test.”