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Zinke’s wife declaring primary residence in California as he runs in Montana

Ryan Zinke, the former Trump Interior secretary now running for Congress again in Montana, has long faced questions about whether he lives in the state or in California.

Now, new tax records uncovered by POLITICO show that Zinke’s wife has designated the home she inherited years ago from her parents in Santa Barbara as her primary residence, as he wages a comeback campaign a thousand-plus miles north and east.

When Zinke filed his candidacy papers with the Federal Election Commission, he listed his family house in Whitefish, Montana, as his place of residence. But he and his wife have used Lola Zinke’s home in Santa Barbara as a mailing address for fundraising invitations, Lola’s own campaign contributions and a business contract his consulting firm filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Meanwhile, a tax filing submitted with the Santa Barbara county government shows a homeowner exemption for the California home for the fiscal year that started last July. The exemption, which offers a $7,000 deduction on property value assessments, applies to homes that “must have been the principal place of residence of the owner” at the beginning of the calendar year.

“Where a husband and wife have more than one residence, their principal residence is the residence at the place at which they intend to live permanently,” according to a California state statute.

There’s nothing illegal about a candidate having a primary residence in one state and running for office in another. Article I of the Constitution states that a candidate must inhabit the state in which they seek federal office on Election Day and makes no mention of permanent residency, said Saurav Ghosh, director for federal reform at Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit that focuses on campaign and elections law.

But Zinke’s residence could be a big political issue as he tries to rejoin Congress. In Montana, there’s enough wariness of outsiders that Democrats in 2018 tagged then-GOP Senate candidate and now-Rep. Matt Rosendale as “Maryland Matt” — even though he’d moved to Montana a decade-and-a-half earlier.

The Zinkes have listed the California home as their mailing address several times since he decamped from Interior in January 2018. Examples include federal campaign donation forms and an SEC filing of his consulting business’ contract with mining company US Gold Corp.

Ryan Zinke lists a home in Whitefish as his address on his campaign paperwork. County tax records show that Whitefish home as being the mailing address for Continental Divide International LLC, the consulting firm that Zinke operates, Great Northern Veterans Peace Park, the non-profit Zinke’s family runs, and other businesses.

But a search through the recorder’s office at Flathead County, where Whitefish is located, shows no homestead declaration for a primary residence for Zinke.

A Zinke campaign spokesperson pushed back on the notion that he’s anything less than a full Montana resident.

“No matter how creatively you word it, Ryan Zinke does not live in or own property in California,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “He lives in Whitefish where he grew up, graduated high school, his sons graduated high school, and has lived his entire life — and his records prove that. Ryan supports his wife’s decision to keep her late parents’ property, which she is the sole owner. Any husband worth his salt would do the same.”

A home being considered the primary residence for one spouse would normally indicate that it is the primary residence of both spouses, said Andrew Hayashi, director of the Virginia Center for Tax Law at the University of Virginia Law School.

“The details for determining residency will depend on the state or local laws, but I would think that it would be a hard sell to any tax authority that the candidate and his wife do not have the same primary residence (assuming they are not separated),” Hayashi said via email.

The issue has become one of the main political weapons some of Zinke’s competitors in the Republican primary have used against him.

“This is just another example of Ryan not being fully honest and transparent with the people of Montana about where exactly he lives,” said Montana state Sen. Albert Olszewski, who is Zinke’s main rival in the June 7 primary.

“What I’ve heard across the state is people just saying ‘look, Ryan doesn’t even live here, Ryan lives in California,’” said Olszewski, who frequently mentions the residency issue in campaign stump speeches.

There haven’t been any public polling of the race, though Olszewski said that his recent internal polls show a close primary.

This year has seen more than a few candidates running for office in states where they don’t have the strongest ties. Mehmet Oz and David McCormick, Republicans running for Senate in Pennsylvania, spent much of their daily lives before their campaigns in New Jersey and Connecticut, respectively, though Oz went to college and medical school in Pennsylvania and McCormick grew up in the state and recently moved back.

Zinke, a former Navy SEAL and Montana congressman who’s been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, never really stopped campaigning even after joining Interior. He left the Trump administration after getting enmeshed in numerous scandals barely a year after being made Interior secretary.

A department investigation found that he had misled officials about his role at a nonprofit that he and his wife were using to attempt to close a land deal with developers. The deal included the chairman of oilfield services company Halliburton, a company whose business operations would have fallen under Interior’s purview.

The Department of Justice also opened an investigation into Zinke’s involvement in Interior denying a permit that would have allowed two native tribes to expand their casino business — a move which faced opposition from lobbyists.

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