HELENA, Mont. (CN) — If Denise Juneau wins her uphill battle to unseat Republican Ryan Zinke in the race for Montana's sole seat in the House of Representatives, she will be the first Native American woman in Congress.
It won't be easy. Zinke is polling at least 10 points ahead of Juneau, and it's rare for challengers to unseat incumbents.
Yet as Christopher Muste, an associate political science professor at the University of Montana noted, Zinke is only a one-term member of the House, without much of a track record. And some Republicans don't consider him conservative enough.
"That's something that he's had to overcome, but those people aren't going to vote for Juneau anyway," Muste said in an interview. "I think Juneau and her supporters thought this was a winnable seat ... Juneau has definitely been one of the stronger figures in the Democratic Party, and has won a statewide office, so she's well known to Montana voters and has pretty good name recognition. But that just hasn't transferred to support for her as much as she had hoped."
Juneau was the first American Indian woman in the nation to hold an executive statewide office, and is wrapping up her second term as Montana's Superintendent of Public Education. She knew from the start that it would be challenging to unseat Zinke.
But Juneau has always been a fighter.
An enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa tribes, and a descendent of the Blackfeet Tribe, she grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation and attended Head Start schools. Eventually she earned a master's degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Public Education, then a law degree from the University of Montana.
Local newspaper the Missoulian recently endorsed her, calling Juneau a "stand-out candidate running a high-profile campaign that has attracted national attention."
The paper, which is the largest in western Montana, added that Juneau's Native background and gender could "bring long-overdue attention" to issues facing women and the tribes.
Helena voter Stephanie Ambrose Tubbs was drawn to Juneau's battle for the House seat.
"Early on in the campaign I heard several friends say that she did not stand a chance in a state like Montana," Tubbs said. "My reaction was and is, that of course she has a chance. She did an outstanding job as Superintendent of Education."
Yet Zinke, a former Navy Seal, is also a fighter.
He's the only Navy Seal in the House of Representatives. He served in the military for 23 years, which included stints in Iraq and Europe as a Special Operations officer. He was awarded two Bronze Stars for combat.
Zinke also holds masters' degrees in business finance and global leadership from San Diego University. He grew up in Whitefish, Montana, where he was a standout on the football team, and he currently owns a home there. He supports Donald Trump, and early in the campaign said he would be a good vice presidential candidate.
Muste cites that proclamation, along with Zinke's statement that he would make a good Speaker of the House, as one of a couple early missteps that Zinke has had to overcome.
"He's made some statements that sounded like he was putting himself first," Muste said. "Generally, people in Montana wonder, as a first-term congressman, would he be able to serve in those positions? So I think he's had some vulnerabilities, but ... he's turned into a pretty effective campaigner."
The Billings Gazette, Montana's largest newspaper, recently endorsed Zinke for his "pragmatism" as a first-year representative. The editorial board also said Zinke is better informed on national issues and foreign policy than his challenger.
"Montana needs a strong voice in the House, especially because we have only one representative," the Gazette wrote. "The House is likely to remain under GOP control in January, and then it will be even more helpful to have our lone representative in the majority party."
His Navy Seal background also makes him popular with some Montana voters, including Susan Lake in Ravalli County in southwestern Montana.
"For this time and place in our history, where we're worrying about ISIS and the state's concerns with our public lands, I feel like he is the best person to represent us," Lake said. "To me, I feel that we spend enough time in the government on social issues, and Denise Juneau has a lot of those. We need to spend money on boots-on-the-ground solutions that work for everybody, and that's what Ryan [Zinke] does."
But Zinke's endorsement of the Trump candidacy is turning away voters like Tubbs.
"I am ashamed that [Zinke] continues to support Donald Trump," Tubbs said. "As a female voter I feel genuinely motivated to shut down voices of intolerance and disrespect. I want Denise Juneau to represent Montana because she will think for herself and not march lockstep with a political party."
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