BILLINGS — In a race fueled by millions of dollars from out-of-state political groups and donors, Democrat Denise Juneau has waged a rancorous fight to wrest Montana’s only U.S. House seat from Republicans for the first time in two decades.
Standing between the state schools chief and her aspiration to become the first American Indian woman elected to Congress has been first-term incumbent Ryan Zinke. He has proven an adept fundraiser whose distinguished military career has made him a GOP favorite.
During public debates and in dueling ad campaigns that helped make it the most expensive House race in the state’s recent history, the main candidates in Tuesday’s election clashed repeatedly — over coal mining on the Crow Indian Reservation, ownership of public lands and gun rights.
But they actually have plenty in common: Both claim to be pro-coal development, pro-public lands and pro-gun.
A more fundamental difference emerged in the candidates’ governance priorities and is illustrated by their contrasting personal backgrounds.
Juneau, 49, is a member of the Mandan Hidatsa tribes who grew up in Browning on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. She is Montana’s first openly gay federal candidate, a distinction that has given her celebrity status among young progressives, highlighted by a lengthy MTV profile of the Democrat.
Juneau describes herself as “a believer in the power of education” who proved it during two four-year terms as superintendent for public instruction, a period that saw significant increases in Montana high school graduation rates. She is also a lawyer and was a public high school English teacher.
“My entire career has always been about trying to make our state a better place for future generations. I want to take that ability to get things done to Congress,” Juneau said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Zinke spent 23 with the U.S. Navy SEALs, rising through the ranks to become a commander in the elite special operations force and serving in Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
When he retired in 2008, the 55-year-old turned to politics with a four-year term as state senator from Whitefish. He made an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor before winning Montana’s only House seat two years ago.
Zinke is a strong supporter of Donald Trump and has expressed interest in serving in a Trump cabinet. He says his military background makes him valuable in Congress and has appeared frequently on TV to give expert commentary on foreign and military affairs. He’s also railed against allowing Syrian refugees without deeper background checks into the U.S. over fears they could make terror attacks.
“I think America should always have a kind heart, but we have to protect our interests first. What we don’t want in this country is un-vetted refugees or a continuation of failed immigration policies,” he told AP. “This is where experience matters in terms of being a combat veteran.”
Also on the House ballot is Libertarian Rick Breckenridge, a land surveyor from Proctor who entered the race in September after the party’s original candidate died in a car crash.
He said voters weary of the major parties have him as an alternative and has pledged to help the nation break its political gridlock.
Breckenridge expects to spend just $3,000 on his campaign while Zinke and Juneau reported raising about $8.2 million combined through mid-October.
Democrats claim Zinke is beholden to interests outside Montana because more than 80 percent of his campaign’s donations are from out-of-state voters.
But Juneau has benefited from nearly $500,000 in television attack advertisements against Zinke purchased by a Washington, D.C.-based political action committee trying to elect a majority of Democrats to the House.
Zinke portrays the outside spending for Juneau an attempt to bring back Democrat California Rep. Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker, a position that went to the Republicans after the Democrats lost the House in 2010.
Juneau said Zinke’s cultivation of out-of-state support showed he’s more interested in becoming a national political figure than he is in representing the interests of Montana citizens.
Both reject the claims.
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