Winslow Rattler

Winslow Rattler, who grew up in Browning, knows and supports Denise Juneau.

ADAM McCAW/For The Gazette

Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke and his Democratic challenger Denise Juneau are breaking campaign fundraising records, according to federal filings released Friday, but few in Montana have been watching the race for the state’s lone House seat.

The lack of local attention to date stands in contrast to the excitement among some national political observers.

Top party officials, political analysts and some prominent national fundraising groups have hailed Juneau's campaign as a chance for Democrats to gain a congressional seat that would erode the Republican majority in the House. Meanwhile, Zinke, who has garnered unusual attention for a first-term congressman, has made a bold bet on Donald Trump’s success, offering himself as a VP option and securing a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention on Monday.

In total, the candidates have about $2 million in the bank to spend on advertising this fall — about $1.2 million for Zinke and $800,000 for Juneau — more than any other Montana congressional race in at least two decades. Zinke already has spent about $4 million, primarily on consulting and fundraising rather than advertising to voters, while Juneau has spent little to date. They could collect and spend millions more before voters cast their ballots in November.

“Juneau is going to raise more money than John Lewis did in 2014 if she keeps going at the current pace, but Zinke is raising ungodly amounts of money for a House race,” Montana State University political scientist David Parker said, noting that both campaigns are expected to receive a level of national support that typically is reserved for Senate races. “Especially since both have about the same amount of money to spend in the fall on advertising, Juneau is positioned to make the race competitive.”

A battle for control of the U.S. House has, in large part, driven the big fundraising.

Carroll College political scientist Jeremy Johnson noted that Democrats hold 30 fewer seats than Republicans and are aiming to close that gap. Although a handful of states could “be very doable,” Johnson said Montana is a stretch given Zinke’s incumbency and strong fundraising. Nonetheless, top supporters of Democratic campaigns have listed Juneau’s campaign among their priorities, as did The Washington Post.

“With Trump at the top of the ticket, Democrats are hoping they can capitalize,” Johnson said.

University of Montana journalism professor and political analyst Lee Banville said some of the initial excitement about Juneau’s run appears to have worn off. As of Friday’s filing, EMILY’s List and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had contributed a little more than $15,000 in total.

“We haven’t seen the kind of money that indicates the national-level Democrats think they have a chance to pick off Zinke right now,” he said, admitting months still remain for them to follow through with contributions and other support. “If there was a perception that Zinke was weak or in trouble you would already see stuff coming, particularly ad buys by outside groups.”

EMILY’s List spokeswoman Rachel Thomas said the group’s support for Juneau has not waned.

“We are absolutely excited about Denise Juneau and 100 percent behind her in this race,” she said. “We are just starting the general election season.”

In recent interviews at cafes, bars and porches along Highway 2, that national fight for control of Congress was far from most people’s minds. No one said they had been following the House race — except for some residents of American Indian reservations.

Juneau, who grew up on the Blackfeet reservation and is an enrolled Mandan and Hidatsa member, made an early campaign swing through the state’s seven reservations. If elected, she would be the first Native American woman to serve in Congress, a fact that, along with time as Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, has been leveraged to build excitement for her campaign and a larger effort by Democrats to increase turnout among Native Americans, who usually favor social liberals.

Winslow Rattler, of Cut Bank, who grew up in Browning, knows and supports Juneau. He said she has done a good job as the superintendent of public instruction, experience he said made her the best option. Although Zinke appeared in the North American Indian Days parade over the weekend, shaking hands along the route — as did Juneau— Rattler said he did not know much about the Republican.

“She’ll get most of the votes here because she’s Indian,” he said.

Cheryl Wild Gun, a retired school clerk, agreed.

Juneau was raised in town “like everybody else. She knows what’s going on. She tries to better it. She comes back for family gatherings, funerals, she knows what it’s like to be here and live here and see the conditions. She won’t leave us behind,” Wild Gun said.

Like many folks in this part of the state, Keith Kenelty, 68, of Libby, said he knew of Zinke but had not watched the campaigns this year.

“I voted for Zinke the first time,” the veteran said, noting that he likes that Zinke is a former Navy SEAL. Kenelty is retired after working for a logging company and the state doing forestry and fire work.

University of Montana political scientist Robert Saldin wasn’t surprised that most average voters have little information about the House race at this point, nor that both candidates have done little face-to-face campaigning and no major advertising yet.

“It could be that they want to save their ammo for the fall when people really start paying attention,” he said. “Spending a lot of money right now doesn’t necessarily pay off come November.”

Parker also noted that the “governor’s race is sucking up all the oxygen” and garnering the most media attention so far. A review of headlines statewide since November show just a handful of stories that mention both Zinke and Juneau compared to dozens about the gubernatorial candidates.

But when Juneau and Zinke do start spending, they likely will break records for a Montana House seat and bring in the kind of out-of-state contributions more typical of Senate races.

As it stands, Zinke enters the summer with about $1.25 million in the bank. In 2014, he only held about $100,000 at this point, although he spent heavily early in that year to win the primary. Juneau reports having about $810,000 in the bank, well above the $622,710 Lewis carried at this point in 2014.

Zinke has spent about 2½ times as much as Juneau has collected. The vast majority of it has been paid to consulting firms that coordinate national fundraising, in part, through direct mail advertisements to known and often retired Republican donors. In large part, that’s why more than two-thirds of the individual contributions to his campaign have come from out of state. He also has received financial backing from a political action committee he created and later left before his 2014 run.

Juneau's campaign has received about two-thirds of its individual contributions from Montanans, although that ratio could shift if Emily's List and other Democratic support groups start rallying more contributors from across the country. 

She characterized Zinke’s heavy spending and reliance on out-of-state fundraising as a sign of poor campaign management and someone most interested in moving to a higher office.

“While Congressman Zinke is out doing work at the national level to figure out what his future is, I care about what happens to Montana and what our future is going to be,” Juneau said.

Zinke’s spokeswoman, Heather Swift, disagreed.

“Our campaign has support from all over America because Ryan Zinke is a proven leader with an impeccable military record defending our nation against radical Islam,” Swift said, criticizing Juneau for not seeking to block refugees from entering Montana. “Ryan Zinke is more concerned about that than fundraising.”

The extent of fundraising to-date by Zinke suggests that he does, in fact, care about those numbers, political analysts said. They argued that his heavy spending, while unusual, is not proof of a flailing campaign.

“My expectation is that he believes he can continue to raise a significant amount of money for his campaign,” Johnson said.

In recent weeks, Zinke’s campaign has reserved time for thousands of television spot ads, primarily in September and October, while Juneau has none so far, according to federal records. Rather than see that as a comparison of campaign strength, Banville considers it an indicator of confidence and style.

“You bought up all these ads. You look ready to unleash the air war. That gives the impression that the campaign is highly organized and has got a lot of money. He’s clearly got this sort of political bravado,” Banville said, noting that reservations don’t always equate to actual ad purchases. “Juneau is running a smart, fairly conservative campaign right now. She’s been building infrastructure and much more grassroots for now.”

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Reporter covering statewide issues for The Billings Gazette.