The challengers 

Inside the uphill climb to knock off an incumbent

History hangs in the balance

A day of highs and lows in Denise Juneau's long-shot bid for U.S. Congress

The sound of Denise Juneau's name echoes across a field at the Missoula County Fairgrounds. Kevin Kicking Woman, the congressional candidate's childhood friend and a Blackfeet tribal member, is singing it out in their native language as the two hold hands during a recent campaign rally. It's a praise song, Kicking Woman explains, for the Native American woman whose trailblazing campaign for U.S. House has served as a beacon for Indian Country even before any votes are cast. If elected, Juneau would become the first American Indian woman to serve in Congress, a full century after the state elected the first white woman to the same seat. Already, Juneau's the first openly gay person to run for federal office in Montana.

click to enlarge 1-i42cover.jpg

If only there were more people to hear Kicking Woman's song. Just 15 have gathered for the lunch-hour rally, including staffers and a member of the media. While Juneau's bid has garnered national interest and inspired Democrats eager to reverse a two-decade congressional losing streak, the event underlines just how hard it can be to slog through a statewide race. Even historic campaigns can struggle to draw a crowd.

Kicking Woman's praise song to an empty field seems to reflect the paradoxical trajectory of Juneau's campaign: Her run is simultaneously unprecedented and conventional, prominent without being captivating, singular but not quite singled out. The latest national news outlet to write about the campaign, MTV, headlined its story "The Historic Congressional Race That Nobody's Watching."

Juneau herself wonders why the race isn't more high profile inside the state. "I guess the governor's race is sucking up all the air," she says after finishing a plate of fish tacos at the Old Post, sounding unconvinced of her own answer.

Unlike Montana's gubernatorial contests, the U.S. House hasn't been competitive for years. Democrats have lost the last 10 races, often by double digits. Juneau's opponent, incumbent Rep. Ryan Zinke, was elected to his first term in 2014 by a 15-point margin of victory. The closest Democrats have come to winning the seat in the last two decades was Nancy Keenan's 5-point loss to Denny Rehberg in 2000.

Juneau seemed poised to break the trend. She grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation (she's a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes), then obtained a master's degree from Harvard University and a law degree from the University of Montana. In 2008, she became the first Native American elected to statewide office, overseeing Montana's K-12 schools as the superintendent of public instruction. During her eight-year tenure, high school graduation rates have steadily risen.

click to enlarge Her campaign has garnered national attention, but Denise Juneau has a lot of ground to make up in her challenge to Rep. Ryan Zinke for Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • Her campaign has garnered national attention, but Denise Juneau has a lot of ground to make up in her challenge to Rep. Ryan Zinke for Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House.

The campaign aimed to capitalize on the excitement generated by Juneau's background to drive up voter turnout, especially among young people and in Indian Country, where her candidacy has particular meaning.

"To have young native women say, 'I can do this,' especially coming from a place like Browning, that is phenomenal," Kicking Woman says.

Juneau has turned heads in Montana and beyond, but by all accounts her campaign has failed to upend the race. She trails significantly in the polls, with the latest from independent firm Mason-Dixon showing Zinke ahead by 13 points. Her campaign has also been out-fundraised, and outside groups haven't funneled the kind of cash into the state that would suggest the parties see Zinke as vulnerable, says University of Montana journalism professor and political analyst Lee Banville.

"[Juneau] has the historic nature of her candidacy, but she still needs something to kind of rally people around in a way that they have not done for the last series of House elections," he says.

Since announcing her candidacy almost a year ago, Juneau has campaigned much like conventional Montana Democrats, Banville says. She's positioned herself, in her words, as an independent, "no-nonsense" thinker who can bring "reasonableness and rationality to Congress." In a recent debate, Juneau commented that she "might have a little bit of a libertarian streak," but her pitch remains a pragmatic one. She points to her record as state superintendent to support this. As head of the Office of Public Instruction, Juneau won some skirmishes with federal education officials over student testing requirements and held out against Obama administration programs that pushed other states to tie test scores to teacher evaluations.

"I haven't been afraid to buck my party, either, particularly around education issues, and trying to make sure whatever happens at the federal level fits our rural state," she says, "and I'll maintain that perspective and that attitude when I get to Congress, too."

The approach, however, can lead to some tepid-sounding answers on specific issues. Juneau calls herself a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights and says Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's policy proposals go too far for Montana. But asked if she supports comprehensive background checks for gun purchases, Juneau says, "Anything that comes in front of Congress on that issue, I'd have to make sure Montanans have input as far as moving forward," before adding: "I don't think I'm opposed to the background checks and making sure that's happening, because the main goal should be to ensure that we're keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and terrorists, and that strengthens the rights of law-abiding gun owners and citizens."

Pragmatism may appeal to moderate Montana voters, but it's hard to package in a soundbite. It's something Juneau admits has proven challenging.

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