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Race for House Potentially ‘Wide Open’
Flathead Valley Republicans announce bids for House seat if Daines opts for Senate run
As the ever-speculative political lens pulls the 2014 U.S. House race into sharper focus, a slate of current and former Flathead Valley lawmakers has expressed strong interest in running for Congressional office, but only if U.S. Rep. Steve Daines takes aim at Montana’s open Senate seat.

Daines is mulling the decision at a deliberate pace, but a solid fundraising quarter has him poised as a potential frontrunner with around $600,000 cash on hand.

The upcoming retirement of Democratic Sen. Max Baucus and the abrupt decision by former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer to pass on a Senate run has put all eyes on Daines, who emerged as a Senate favorite just six months into his first term in Congress.

With Schweitzer out of the picture, Montana’s open seat is distinguished as one of the most attractive Republican pickup opportunities, and a June poll shows Daines ahead of the short list of potential Democratic candidates – state Auditor Monica Lindeen and state schools superintendent Denise Juneau – by double digits. Lindeen has since said she will not run.

Veteran state legislator Jon Sonju, of Kalispell, and former state senator Ryan Zinke, of Whitefish, who were both 2012 lieutenant governor candidates, both say they intend to run if Daines does not seek another term in the House, while three-term legislator Scott Reichner says he too is considering running for House if Daines does not.

Sonju announced recently that he will not seek re-election to the state Senate after a single term – he previously served three terms in the state House – and instead endorsed Montana Speaker of the House Mark Blasdel to run for Senate District 4, in a primary election showdown with Kalispell Mayor Tammi Fisher.

“That primary will be one that everyone has their eyes on,” Sonju said. “You’ve got the speaker of house, who is most powerful person in the legislature, running against a mayor who has some pretty good name ID as well.”

The announcement also gave Sonju, who has been close friends with Blasdel since kindergarten (the two are roommates during the legislative session), the freedom to express early interest in the U.S. House seat.

Sonju, 37, is business development manager at Sonju Industries and has an interest in SI Defense, which manufactures firearms in the Flathead Valley. He ran as a lieutenant governor candidate with former U.S. Rep. Rick Hill last year, but narrowly lost to Democrats Steve Bullock and John Walsh in the general election.

His work in the private sector and the political experience and support he gained on the campaign are invaluable, Sonju said, and he’s been in touch with key Republican leaders and supporters around the state.

“Right now all eyes are on Steve Daines. And if he moves over I am actively looking into running for U.S. Congress,” Sonju said. “To me it is highly probable that Steve Daines is going to run for United States Senate, and he should. Number one he can win that seat and number two he is qualified.”

Sonju noted the parallels of political experience between himself and Daines, who also ran for lieutenant governor of Montana in 2008, running on the ticket with Republican Roy Brown.

“There are a lot of similarities there,” he said. “And when you combine that with my background in the Legislature I think there is a big opportunity there. The Legislature has given me a pretty firm grasp on the heartbeat of the state of Montana. I don’t want to go to Washington, D.C. for a job, I want to go there to make a difference, because I have a job and I love Montana.”

Another name floating in Montana’s political ethers is Ryan Zinke, and the former state senator and 2012 lieutenant governor candidate recently said he was giving serious consideration to a run for the House seat if Daines pursues the Senate.

“I am looking hard at it,” Zinke said. “I am flattered that a number of groups are enlisting Zinke for Congress. And if I choose to run I am going to run to win.”

Zinke, 51, is a former commander of Navy Seal Team Six, and serves on the board of directors of STWA Applied Oil Technologies, a company that works to reduce the viscosity of crude oil in order to make pipelines more efficient.

“I don’t think anyone can dispute my background. I have an MBA in finance, no one knows more about military budgets or keeping America strong through counterterrorism,” Zinke said. “I travel extensively and I understand the importance of the oil industry and fossil fuels.”

Zinke also noted his willingness to cross party lines and ability to compromise with Democratic lawmakers, a rare trait that has given Daines broad name recognition.

“I think one of Daines’ best votes was the North Fork,” Zinke said, referring to the freshman Congressman’s introduction of the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, a companion bill to one introduced by Baucus and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, which would protect the pristine watershed from new oil and gas development and mining.

“I play a pretty good bridge,” Zinke said. “I get along with both camps and I have never bowed in to being a yes guy on either side. I am not just another check in the box, and I will stand with the Democrats if they are standing on firm ground for the right reason.”

Zinke said his resolve to do what’s right for Montana, and not merely knuckling under to party politics, would remain strong as a U.S. Congressman.

“I am a former Navy Seal Team Six commander. What kind of pressure are they going to put on me in D.C.? What are they going to do, waterboard me? Been there, done that. What’s next?”

Rep. Scott Reichner, of Bigfork, might not have the name recognition of his fellow potential House candidates, but he’s shown plenty of political savvy during his three terms as a legislator.

In 2011, Reichner shepherded in one of the most important bills of the session, overhauling Montana’s workers’ compensation insurance rates, which were ranked among the highest in the nation. The bill passed the House 50-49, and became a new law at a signing ceremony where Reichner appeared seated next to Schweitzer and lawmakers from both parties.

Given his bipartisanship and voting record of putting Montana first, as well as his experience chairing Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s Montana campaign, Reichner says he has “as good a chance as anybody” in a run for Daines’ seat.

“I have been successful at marshaling good legislation through the House, but so have those other guys,” he said. “With a level playing field this is something that I would be excited to jump into.”

Reichner, 46, owns a mortgage brokerage company. He served as state finance chairman for the Rick Hill campaign and, although he maintains that a run for the House seat is contingent on Daines running for Senate, he views the race as “wide open.”

“I’m a regular guy. I’m just a small business owner with a large family, but I am kind of a self-made guy and when you have opportunities like this you explore them,” he said.

“I haven’t made a decision but I am very interested. With a level playing field, I would be excited and humbled at the opportunity to serve,” he added.
On 08-01-13, BlueLightSpecial commented....
Scott Reichner is the only one capable of carrying meangingful legislation. Zinke, although a nice man and respected former Navy Seal, is a phony Republican and Sonju has never broken a sweat in his life. Reichner would be the clear choice - he certainly would…
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