Montana Politics

Special Operations for America: Coordinating with Ryan Zinke?

No one outside of the small group who believes that wider sidewalks are part of a UN conspiracy believes the claims that Montana congressional candidate Ryan Zinke isn’t coordinating with the Special Operations for America Super PAC he led until days before his congressional bid was announced, but coordination between PACs and candidates is difficult to prove. The real evidence of coordination here is Zinke’s relationship with the Super PAC, the fact that it’s not spending any energy on the other candidates it claims to support, and that it’s still located right next to Zinke’s address.

Coordination between candidates and Super PACS is explicitly illegal under campaign finance laws, with specific prohibitions against candidates communicating with the Super PAC.

Kalispell’s Scott Wilson Photography posted a series of images on Facebook of the Zinke family, part of a series of “campaign photos” that later involved the whole family. It’s a lovely set of shots.


The second photo from the right shows the family gathered together and another was so nice the Zinke campaign posted it on Twitter just yesterday:


The first is a lovely family photo—one that’s so nice Special Operations for America featured it in both of the ads they’ve released on behalf of the candidate:


It’s possible that Special Operations for America lifted a low-resolution image from Facebook and turned it into a high-resolution photograph good enough for television and it’s possible they’re violating Scott Wilson’s copyright on the photograph and using it without his permission.

Or it’s just a bit more likely that candidate Zinke gave his Super PAC a nice, camera-ready image he liked so much he’s using it for his family, his Congressional campaign, and for his totally-unaffiliated Super PAC’s use.

In the scheme of the likely violations of campaign finance laws being committed by Zinke and Special Operations for America, this is small potatoes—but a pretty clear indication of coordination.

Update: James raises some fair points in the comments below. It’s certainly possible that an outfit like SOFA would lift an image without permission for their ad, too. In either case, it demonstrates the total absurdity of campaign finance in the wake of Citizens United. It’s illegal for a candidate to coordinate directly with a Super PAC, but permissible to post images, text, and video they just happen to use in their ads? It’s a totally broken system.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.


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      • Well if the people who do understand how they work haven’t done anything to penalize, prosecute, or strip Zinke of his money or his right to run then what difference does it make?

        Nov 1, 2013 and Jan 13, 2012 were the dates of your linked-to articles. If there’s a crime here, what is it, and why hasn’t it been addressed? Perhaps that would be something worthwhile to post about.

        One article you do link to is something from Nov 20 that’s on this site about Zinke. What’s your beef with this guy? Did he make you drink water from a mud puddle when you were kids or something?

        Personally I think you have nothing to talk about so you’re beating silly and inconsequential issues to death. I know it’s a long wait until November, but maybe you could look up some stories from Montana’s past, and how parties screwed people over then.

        Because honestly, I don’t see anything here but what I said, fluff that’s of little consequence. If this is how you want to spend your nights, writing about these trifles over and over, be my guest.

        I’m just not sure what value it has for you, the people you do support for office, or the people who read this site and who have probably already made up their mind about this guy.

          • Well I’m writing 3 books write now but the only one that could possibly be relevant to this discussion would by my third volume of Montana history from 1870 to 1900.

            Right now I’m writing about Yellowstone and it’s interesting how hard Montanans lobbied for that park not to be created, and then how they ignored all federal regulations concerning it for the next 30 years.

            Thankfully their short-term interests weren’t listened to. Montanans often don’t know what’s best for them and have historically favored short-term gains for themselves over long-term gains for the state.

            I wonder how many are doing that still.

        • I appreciate your knowledgeable feedback. You seem to have a real handle on Montana politics, based on your comments here and elsewhere.

          I’d suggest that you’d be better served writing some political posts that really matter so the rest of us can benefit from your deep level of understanding.

          Stop wasting your time commenting on my trivial posts; the Montana political world is desperate for your knowledge. Desperate for it.

  • Interesting discoveries. Some observations:

    (1) The images on Scott Wilson’s Facebook page are large enough to use in a video ad without any loss of quality.

    (2) Zinke may have an agreement with Wilson for campaign and editorial use of low resolution copies of some or all of the photos.

    (3) How did the superpac learn about the photos? If Zinke sent out hundreds or thousands of the photos, bearing Wilson’s copyright notice, to friends, donors, etc., the existence of the photos, and where to get them, could have been transmitted to the superpac without direct contact from, or knowledge by, Zinke.

    (4) Direct coordination is forbidden, easy to hide, and in many cases probably not that necessary.

    Zinke’s doing well with fundraising, much better than Rosendale (who loaned himself most of his money) and Stapleton (who spent most of what he raised). Whether that makes him the GOP leader is another question.

    • I think the race for the Republicans is all about raising enough money to win the primary. Once one does that, he’ll get all the PAC money he needs to be competitive. Of the candidates, the only one seeming to get any real traction is Zinke, despite the first poll showing him way behind.

      If Montana Republicans know Zinke’s relatively moderate record, there’s no way he wins the primary. It just doesn’t seem like his opponents are doing much to highlight that.

      • I think the only way a relatively moderate Republican (a null class?) wins a primary is if a number of other candidate split the conservative vote. Just over 20 percent of the vote might be enough to win.

        • I think that’s why Zinke and SOFA are spending so much money on ads that say nothing other than that he loves America and despises President Obama. His record on abortion, guns, education, and the like makes Zinke someone a lot of Republicans simply won’t be able to vote for.

          My guess is that Zinke hopes to win the primary by saying nothing of substance and then presenting himself as a conservative-moderate candidate in the general.

          The other GOP candidates seem to be spinning their wheels, though, campaigning mostly on Facebook.

    • Good points on the photos, James.

      One thing (that I should change in the original post: it wasn’t from Facebook, unless SOFA has the fastest media team in the US. Wilson posted the photos on January 6 and SOFA posted their ad on Jan 8.

  • Coordination without violating campaign finance regulations is super easy in the Age of Twitter, FB, and 501 shops that set up as oppo groups.

  • While I think it is a foregone conclusion that Zinke’s Pac is working for Zinke, I also think that – as other commenters have said already, it is almost impossible to prove. The Montana Political Practices Dept has a hard time acting on complaints that aren’t hard to prove – I doubt that this one will get much actual traction with them.

    I do see your point, about Zinke being a potential frontrunner, but he has – so far – failed to pick up the more mature Conservative electorate and Stapleton has the Conservative youth electorate pretty much sewn up. Even if Stapleton is cash strapped (and from what I can find out, he almost is), he will still enjoy a lead against Zinke unless Zinke can yank some of the mature conservative electorate away from the wingnuts.

    I somewhat agree with James, though. Zinke can pull a primary win if the Wingnuts split the more mature conservative vote and if Zinke can find enough support to overcome Stapleton’s lead with the younger conservatives.

    All bets are off, though, if the more Wingnut element of the Republicans make a big deal of Zinke’s voting past. As soon as his voting record on abortion comes out to the general conservative voters, Zinke will be hurting.

    If he does make it past the primary, he will have a much easier job playing the moderate, though than any of the other candidates except Stapleton.

  • Its not hard to prove, with enough funds. Most political Practice offices are limited by funding, which is exactly what Politicians want. Thats why they continually short change these kind of offices. In this case it doesn’t matter what side of the partisan divide your on.

    Even though the democrats are no way equivalent to the republicans misbehaving, for some reason absolutely unknown to us all… they are afraid themselves of scrutiny and investigation.

    When you wont use Robber Baron laws to protect the people of the state, it makes you as guilty as the Robber Barons themselves.

  • As Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center said in Mother Jones’s November article on Zinke and SOFA, he has them on his radar now and will be watching them closely. All he has to do is supboena his original copy of the photos and it’ll be done. We all know where SOFA got them, I mean SOFA posted them before Zinke did. Why would SOFA, run by Zinke’s close friends, former navy seal Stubblefield, and Scott Hommel, need to steal them? How would they even know they existed? Come on. Sure, maybe this violation in and of itself, is not a huge deal, but if SOFA knows The Zinkster is having campaign photos taken, don’t you think they’re probably communicating on the regurlar. The year end documents need to be filed with the FEC by Jan. 31, and with a little digging, it will allll become crystal clear.

  • I’ve been following your posts about Zinke. A quick glance and competence with the scroll button showed me that Zinke posted every family picture you show that SOFA has used on his personal facebook on 12/31/13. They didn’t have a copyright notice, but any campaign photos should, if they have a proper media consultant, come with editorial licensee so they can be released to the press. FYI

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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