Ryan Zinke Montana House GOP race

Ryan Zinke and his wife Lolita wave to passing cars and voters outside the Flathead County Fairgrounds on Tuesday, June 3, in Kalispell, Montana. (AP Photo/Daily Inter Lake, Brenda Ahearn)

Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake

HELENA — An expensive and narrow primary win has left Republican U.S. House nominee Ryan Zinke to unite his party and rebuild his campaign's depleted coffers after his opponent, John Lewis, cruised to the Democratic nomination flush with more than $500,000 in cash.

Zinke won Tuesday's five-way GOP primary election with just 33 percent of the vote after a tough campaign in which opponents and former party leaders questioned the Whitefish Republican's conservative credentials.

The former state senator raised more money than his Republican counterparts at just about $1.2 million, and he had the backing of a super political action committee he founded called Special Operations for America.

But he also spent more than $1 million of those donations to emerge as the winner.

Zinke beat the second-place finisher, former state Sen. Corey Stapleton, by more than 15,300 votes, but he's now left with about $150,000 and perhaps some fences to mend, though he said he deliberately avoided disparaging his opponents in the primary campaign.

"This race will be reflected upon as the most expensive congressional primary in the history of Montana," Zinke said early Wednesday. "I think I'm going to be stronger because of it, and I think the Republican Party will unify."

The campaign trail doesn't get any easier when Zinke faces Lewis and Libertarian candidate Mike Fellows in the Nov. 4 election.

Lewis is making his first run for political office, but he has 12 years as an aide to former Sen. Max Baucus under his belt, plus the Democratic establishment and its deep-pocketed donors at his back.

Lewis received about 60 percent of the vote in his primary against former Montana House Speaker John Driscoll, who had sworn off taking any donations. Lewis spent less than a quarter of what Zinke did in his primary, leaving the Democrat with more than $518,000 in the bank to begin the general election campaign.

The 36-year-old Helena resident seemed eager to take that next step after his Tuesday victory, focusing his campaign message on bringing high-paying jobs and affordable education to the state. He seemed unconcerned about who he would face in November, saying he's not "running against somebody."

"This is about the future of Montana and who's got the best vision for Montana. I'm going to continue to talk about that and focus on solutions, not partisan attacks from our opponents," he said.

Zinke also has made economic growth a central campaign them, but says energy development is the best way to get there.

"I think you couldn't find two (more) different candidates than John Lewis and myself," Zinke said.

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