Montana Race for U.S. Congress Remains Under the Radar

Zinke's national stature could rise Monday when he addresses the GOP National Convention in Cleveland

By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN, Associated Press
Republican U.S. House candidate Ryan Zinke waves to supporters at the Flathead County Fairgrounds on Nov. 4, 2014. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

HELENA — It didn’t take long for U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke to bring up his previous life as a U.S. Navy SEAL commander. He opened a recent interview by joking about how he used his military skills to bolt out of the House floor to his office during another lockdown at the U.S. Capitol. In recent weeks, he’s soaked up national attention after offering himself up as a potential vice president or secretary of defense in a Trump administration.

“I’m far more influential as a freshman than I think I should be,” the Republican said during an interview earlier this week.

But for all the bombast, Zinke has also been trying to portray himself as a workhorse, not a show horse, as he campaigns for a second term for Montana’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He takes credit for being a principle sponsor of 18 bills, though only two made it out of the House.

His opponent, schools Superintendent Denise Juneau, is portraying the incumbent as out of touch with Montana voters and more concerned with his political ambitions.

Juneau, a Democrat, is the clear underdog in a race that has generated little attention thus far, partly because the race has been mostly overshadowed by the state’s gubernatorial contest. And it remains to be seen if Juneau can turn the race into a truly competitive one.

Juneau touts her accomplishments as schools chief, while Zinke, a former military officer, bills himself as an expert on national security. Both have jousted over how best to steward public lands.

Over Juneau’s two terms as superintendent of schools, graduation rates have gone up. In 2015, the graduation rate reached 86 percent, about six points higher than five years prior.

If elected, Juneau would be the first Native American woman to serve in Congress and only the second woman to represent the state in Washington, a feat that would come a century after Montana’s Jeannette Rankin, a Republican, became the first woman to be elected to the House.

“She needs to shake up what’s been a quiet campaign so far,” said Robert Saldin, a political scientist at the University of Montana.

In the money race, Zinke has an advantage. According to the latest campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election commission, Zinke had $1.2 million left in the bank as of June 30, even after burning through $2.6 million. Juneau reported having nearly $811,000 in cash reserves and is counting on strong financial support from the Democratic Party and Emily’s list, the political action committee that is working to advance women in politics.

“Even if Juneau does not raise as much as Zinke, she will raise enough to be competitive in terms of being able to advertise and make her case to voters,” said Jeremy Johnson, a political science professor at Carroll College.

Zinke’s national stature could rise Monday when he addresses the GOP National Convention in Cleveland about national security and global terrorism.

In a statement, he said he was “excited to join Republicans from around the country to put Montana in the spotlight while we work together to move American foreign policy in the right direction.”

Most pundits expect Montana to remain Republican territory, but Juneau points out that some outside analysts consider her race among the ones to watch in a year that has already confounded expectations. The last Democrat to win the U.S. House seat was Pat Williams in 1994.

“People disregard that a Democrat can win this race,” Juneau said. “I’ve always been an underdog in every race that I’ve run. … I’m used to close elections. I know where I have to go to get votes.”

By most accounts, Juneau needs strong turnout from Native Americans, who represent about 8 percent of the state’s population. Native Americans usually favor Democrats, and that’s why Juneau has made frequent trips to Indian reservations across the state.

Zinke, however, isn’t about to cede the Native vote. He touts his record of supporting Native American issues, including relaxing rules that are preventing new coal leases on tribal lands and supporting water compacts with tribes.

“As the only congressman from Montana,” Zinke said, “I represent those who voted for me, those who didn’t vote for me and those who will never vote for me.”