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The Historic Congressional Race That Nobody’s Watching

Meet the candidate fighting to become the first American Indian woman in Congress

The 65th annual Indian Days in Montana were almost over, and Denise Juneau commemorated the moment by Snapchatting a pan of sizzling pancreas. Dressed in jeans, her brown bob held back by a pair of sunglasses, she had the relaxed, even voice of your favorite second-grade teacher along with the demeanor and deadpan humor of your favorite high-school English teacher as she chatted with her staffers about how good it was to be home.

For Juneau — the Democratic challenger for Montana’s lone congressional seat and a member of the Mandan Hidatsa Tribes — the trip back to Browning for North America’s largest powwow had the feeling of a homecoming rally. It seemed like everyone in town was either her cousin, knew her from school, or used to be mayor (OK, maybe only one or two people were former mayors). Browning, the seat of tribal government on the Blackfeet Reservation, has a population of just over a thousand. The people Juneau talked to seemed more knowledgeable about her doings than she was, thanks to the perpetual game of Telephone that keeps small towns afloat.

At the end of Indian Days, Juneau plopped down at a picnic table outside the dancer-filled pavilion, where the rumble of powwow drums and the fragrance of fry bread pizza filled the air. When Marci McLean of Western Native Voice, a group that tries to get out the American Indian vote, came up and offered some about-to-be-fried sweetbread, Juneau’s staffers — all women — googled to find out what part of the animal they were about to eat. Juneau then added the snack to her ever-vanishing repository of Snapchat campaign memories — the endless shots of Montana mountains, the pictures with young supporters, and the relentlessly positive captions that help buoy a long-shot campaign, like “stay calm on the surface, but paddle like hell underneath.”

This weekend was not one for paddling, though. Even underdog candidates need to tread water every once in a while and recharge, especially when the most brutal part of their campaign is up ahead. Juneau spent the final afternoon of Indian Days walking around the assembled teepees and trailers trying to find likely voters and familiar faces — preferably at the same time. She came across Gertie Heavy Runner — a 92-year-old who’d given Juneau her tribal name, Blue Cloud Woman, when the candidate was a baby — in a blue-dot-covered teepee called Many Moons. Heavy Runner spoke the name into Juneau’s iPhone so she could memorize it in Blackfeet (and hopefully deploy it at future events). Heavy Runner’s family later gave Juneau a gift of sweet pine meant for “smudging,” or much-needed purification after months of campaigning while simultaneously serving as the state’s superintendent of public instruction. Heavy Runner, in bold sunglasses and a blue sundress, also dished out lines more cutting than the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey. “You don’t know these people,” she complained about all the politicians not sitting right next to her at that moment. “It’s very important that they come to see us. We see names we know, and we vote for them.”

Later, reflecting on what happened in Many Moons, Juneau agreed. “As Gertie said in there, you can dress me up, you can put me in high-heeled slippers, but I’m still an Indian, no matter what. I’m a candidate, I’ve been elected statewide twice, and I happen to be a candidate who happens to be American Indian, who happens to be a woman, who happens to be openly gay. It’s all a bonus. I think that gets people excited.”

Visiting home during an election is perhaps most refreshing because, sometimes, your friends will trash-talk the competition. Juneau ate lunch with a bunch of locals in the backyard of a friend she’d known since her student-teaching days. The topic of Representative Ryan Zinke, who had been at Indian Days the day before, came up a few times as the group gossiped and munched on ramen salad. “Have you ever been to a luncheon where they bash your opponent?” one person joked. “No,” Juneau said. She paused for a moment and grinned. “But I like it.”

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Montana was always going to give its three Electoral College votes to Donald Trump, which means Juneau never had a chance of climbing Hillary Clinton’s coattails. That doesn’t mean this long-shot race hasn’t earned some out-of-state attention. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is intrigued enough by what’s happening in Montana that it’s added the Juneau-Zinke contest to its list of Red to Blue target races. Both candidates have been fundraising like mad. And the race, despite its local flavor, shares enough notes with the presidential election that the national contest’s brutality has started to rub off on its forgotten younger sibling.

Juneau’s victory, like Clinton’s, would be historic. Not only would she be the first American Indian woman to serve in Congress, she’d be the first openly gay person to serve Montana in Congress and the first woman to win a House seat in the state since 1940. But she’s going to have to beat an incumbent who talks a lot like Trump — and has proved similarly resilient — to get there. Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, is one of the few politicians who was willing to be seen speaking onstage at the Republican National Convention, and went so far as to say he’d be willing to be Trump’s vice-president. The GOP seems prepared to defend the seat with some national flair if necessary; Representative Trey Gowdy, the chair of the House Benghazi Committee, already campaigned with Zinke in August.

Juneau’s spent the past few months trying to ignore the dark, vaguely Trump-shaped cloud hovering over down-ballot races everywhere, instead driving across the huge state to meet as many voters as possible. Road-tripping is a Montana campaign tradition. In 1974, back when the state had a whopping two House districts, candidate Max Baucus went on a 630-mile walking tour, accompanied only by the icicles in his nose. Dennis McDonald campaigned on horseback in 2010; future governor Dorothy Bradley did the same thing in 1992.

It also means running ads that end with her fiercely crossing her arms and talking about “Montana values,” which roughly translates to “I love fishing, thinking about how lucky I am to live here, and have Wild West–style mixed feelings about the government,” at least once a day. When in doubt, in Montana, just try to prove you’re the most Montanan person in the race. And Juneau, who has spent most of her 49 years in the state, is indelibly Montanan — just not of the sort that the state has ever elected at this level.

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Juneau was born in Oakland, California, where her parents, Stan and Carol, moved for job training after the Indian Relocation Act of 1956. Her earliest memories, though, are of Browning, where her father grew up and where the family returned when Denise was 2. A lot has changed since then. The movie theater is gone, as is the water tower. The sign for the Last Star Homes federal housing project where she grew up is starting to fade. The building where Juneau played basketball as a teenager no longer welcomes high schoolers; a new school — with a distracting view of the snowcapped mountains at Glacier National Park — was just constructed to hold the increasing number of young people in town.

Life is harder in Browning, too. “It’s tougher than it used to be,” Juneau says. “There was more of an opportunity to make a dollar back then.” Her mom agrees: “In the last 10 to 15 years, there seems to be a bigger influence of alcohol and drugs than when we first moved there. There are a lot more homeless people.” The town is so broke that the state took over its finances earlier this year. The unemployment rate on the Blackfeet reservation was about 69 percent in 2012.

The picture isn’t much brighter across the seven reservations in Montana. The state has consistently ranked among the top five in the country when it come to suicides, and that rate is highest among American Indians. All of Montana’s lowest performing schools are located on reservations, too — a major reason Juneau often talks on the trail about her office’s Graduation Matters Montana initiative, which has cut dropout rates by a third in the past six years.

The reality of life on reservations has informed Juneau’s entire career, as well as that of her parents. “In some ways,” says Walter Fleming, professor of Native American studies at Montana State University in Bozeman, “they are the first family of Montana Indian politics.” Making sure American Indians are making decisions in government has been the Juneaus’ mission for decades, because, as Carol puts it, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”

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After graduating from Browning High School in 1985, Juneau headed off to what was then called Eastern Montana College, five hours away in Billings, for a degree in education. It was almost an inevitable career choice; the elder Juneaus had occupied nearly every public school and college job Browning had to offer, including teacher, athletic director, school counselor, community college founder, vice-principal, and superintendent. When their daughter meets students through her job, she always says her diploma from Browning is her most treasured possession.

Juneau wishes she had taken a gap year before heading to Billings, though; a year into college, she got a DUI after a party. She took a semester off and transferred to Montana State University campus in Bozeman. In 1989, then-22-year-old Juneau was arrested for drunk driving again, this time spending seven days in jail. The news of her past arrests went public two weeks after she announced her campaign last November. “I could have probably become a stronger person before going to college, and getting involved with all that party culture,” she says now, adding that “elected officials in this day and age have to be as open-book as you can, or the other side will use it against you.”

After she returned to Bozeman, she saw a flyer in a college building for an education fellowship. “Since I was the only minority in the department,” she says, “I figured it was a flyer for me.” She got the fellowship, and it eventually took her to the Harvard Graduate School of Education and her first chance to live outside of Montana. After getting her masters in education, Juneau taught in Browning and on a reservation in North Dakota, went to law school, worked as a state Supreme Court clerk, dabbled in academia at the University of New Mexico, then worked in the Office of Public Instruction. She ran for office next; this is the longest she’s been at one job.

Politics is a family business for the Juneaus as much as education. Stan Juneau served two years on the Tribal Council. He never ran again after losing his reelection bid. (“I don’t need to be kicked in the ass twice,” his daughter recalls him explaining.) Carol served in the state House for nearly a decade and became the first American Indian woman to serve in the state Senate. “I hope they remember me for my willingness to stand up for people who don’t have too strong of a voice,” she says. “To speak out for people, Indian people particularly.” She sponsored the Indian Education for All Act in 1999, and forced the state to rename 76 bodies of water and mountains in the state that had “squaw” — an offensive term for Native American women — in their name. “The landscape of Montana itself looks different,” former state House Speaker Carol Williams says, “because of Carol [Juneau].”

Winning those tribal council and state legislature races were easier than finding a mountain in Montana, at least in comparison to Denise’s first run statewide for the superintendent of public instruction position in 2008. Stan and Carol still have the staple gun they used to hang up posters in their garage in Great Falls. That campaign was taxing, in no small part because Denise had to explain, over and over again, that yes, a Native candidate is capable of caring about people who don’t live on reservations. Stan and Carol had previously campaigned in districts where American Indians made up a majority of the population. Running statewide in Montana, which is 90 percent white, is quite different. “Just consider in Montana,” Carol says, “where Indians make up only 6 percent of the population, she’s got to be able to step outside of her background and win the votes of those people who don’t usually vote for people outside their culture.” Juneau ended up winning by 7 percentage points and was reelected by a much closer margin in 2012. She decided to run for Congress last year after running up against term limits.

Juneau’s parents have been mostly spectators during this year’s campaign; Stan has been in and out of the hospital for prostate cancer treatment and heart surgery. They still try to help where they can, even if their efforts might be invisible from the campaign trail. When a few of Juneau’s cousins visited her father during cancer treatment, Carol asked if they were registered to vote and pulled voter registration cards out of her purse. “I think [Denise] was embarrassed for me,” Carol says, “but hopefully that resulted in people being registered in Browning.”

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Getting out the Native vote is almost as hard as trying to win a statewide election as an American Indian. For one thing, the nearest polling place can often be hours away. The state has started setting up satellite voting offices so voters on the reservation can more easily access the polls, but these often aren’t open as long as other polling places. It’s also hard to register voters on reservations. The process of filling out the card itself can be difficult, as some houses don't have physical addresses.

Canvasing is tricky, too, because houses are so far away from each other. Western Native Voice, the Billings-based nonprofit run by Marci McLean, the woman frying sweetbread at Indian Days, goes to powwows and tribal colleges every year to conduct registration drives. Funding is down this year, and the organization had only registered around 400 people through mid-July. "We have nowhere to go but up," McLean says when asked how she’s feeling about turnout in November. During the 2016 primary, very few people voted on reservations. Other parts of rural Montana that are also struggling with access to health care and jobs did turn out; Trump won the Republican primary there with nearly 74 percent of the vote.

This history sits at the heart of Juneau’s theory of government, as does the weight of another moment in Montana’s past, one that will get brought up repeatedly during this campaign. It’s been 100 years since Jeannette Rankin became the first woman to ever serve in Congress. Rankin, a Republican remembered for being the only person to vote against World Wars I and II, was also the last woman to ever get elected to the House in Montana. When Juneau announced her own campaign, she did it in front of the Rankin statue at the Montana state Capitol.

Ninety-nine years ago, American Indians weren’t able to vote for Rankin. The Indian Citizenship Act didn’t pass until 1924, and even then, voting restrictions kept American Indians from casting ballots until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In later years, lawsuits became a crucial tool for those pushing to make it easier for American Indians to vote across the country. “Voter suppression gets labeled as a Southern story,” says the Montana Historical Society’s Martha Kohl, “but it happens in Montana too.” Native Americans are still getting left out of decision-making across the country, as the battle over a pipeline near the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota makes clear. Now, however, more and more Native candidates are running and winning in Montana. Juneau became the first American Indian to win statewide in 2008. Eleven American Indian candidates are vying for spots in the state legislature in Montana this year; if all of them succeed, Native Americans will make up 8 percent of the state government, exceeding parity for the first time.

“I know how to wait, and how long it takes for change to happen,” she says. “That’s the reality of Native American policy.”

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Juneau isn’t the only candidate in Montana eager to win with American Indians. Republicans in the state have also been paying more attention to the bloc, and the Montana Democratic Party has hired a Native Vote director. There are a lot of untapped votes to be had; in 2012, for example, only 56 percent of voters in Big Horn County, home to the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, cast ballots.

Republican Greg Gianforte, who’s running in this year’s closely watched and expensive gubernatorial race, went to a powwow in Arlee this summer and challenged a tribal leader to a round of stick games. G. Bruce Meyers, who represents the Rocky Boy reservation, is currently the only American Indian Republican in the state legislature. Before he came along, he says his party “had a pretty poor outreach effort.” (He adds, “We’ve improved.”) Fleming agrees: Republicans have been making more of an effort. “But,” he adds, “they don’t have a message, that’s where they are right now. They know they have to make an appearance, but they don’t know what to say when they get there.”

Zinke (whose campaign, along with the Montana GOP, did not respond to MTV News’s requests for comment) has been emphasizing how he thinks he can best help the Native community lately. “As the only congressman from Montana,” he told the Associated Press in July, “I represent those who voted for me, those who didn’t vote for me and those who will never vote for me.” He attended the Indian Days parade in Juneau’s hometown this year. Juneau, who was walking the same route accompanied by eight 96-ounce bags of candy — the kids standing along the parade path may not be able to vote, but it is proper campaign etiquette to get them high on sugar anyway — later said “the fact that he showed up at the parade, it shows he’s getting nervous.” In fact, Juneau has made the Republican Party’s presence part of her pitch when visiting reservations. “I heard the Republicans were here yesterday,” she said on one visit. “It’s fine to eat their food, but you need to vote Democratic in November.”

As warm as Juneau’s reception was in Browning, it’s by no means certain that the race will be close. And Juneau can’t win with Indian Country alone. “The stars need to come into alignment for her to win,” says Montana State University professor David C.W. Parker. “The electorate has to show up to vote, Native Americans have to show up and they have to vote Democrat, young voters have to show up at colleges, and they have to win urban areas.” In other words, Juneau has to run a near-perfect campaign, and the race has to get far more exciting. Local newspapers have rated it a complete snooze; since 1889, just five Democrats have won House seats in Montana. If that weren’t hard enough, the race has progressed in the complete absence of polling that usually accompanies politics in rural states.

All Juneau can do is wait and hope that national politics don’t eat her campaign alive — or if they do, that she gets to come along for the ride.

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The problem of trying to run a “Who’s the Most Montanan” contest is that these down-ballot races don’t happen in a vacuum. It’s especially difficult for anyone in a state or local election to ignore what’s happening at the national level in a year like 2016. Juneau’s first debate against Zinke took place on the Fort Peck Indian reservation at the end of August. It was a perfect case study in how modern House and Senate races can become a game of tug-of-war between candidates’ impulses to perform an interpretive dance on behalf of their state — here, that means mentioning tribal sovereignty, bison, and public lands — and their desire to try to make their opponent stand in for everything awful about national politics. “I think my opponent has the same problem that Hillary does — the truth,” Zinke said at the debate. “I sometimes wonder if he’s representing Montana or making sure he’s on a 24-hour news cycle and out stumping for Donald Trump, and missing critical votes,” Juneau countered. Zinke’s latest ads pair unflattering photos of Juneau with footage of Clinton and Obama. Montana leads the country in split-ticket voting, but it’s harder to make an argument for doing a tasting menu of parties on your ballot when you’ve only heard that both candidates are exactly like those running for president.

It’s not clear the voters Juneau needs will look away from the one reality-TV show that might make the history books either. After Indian Days ended, Juneau went to Bozeman for a meeting with college advocacy group Forward Montana at a nearby pizza joint. Juneau seemed determined to learn what could convince this Democratic-leaning demographic to turn out. She asked them a crucial question: How do you compel young people to vote when they don’t like either of the major-party presidential candidates? The resounding answer was “fear.”

Juneau, the candidate trying to be new in a year where everyone is resigned to feeling nostalgic — and whose race will appear immediately after Trump and Hillary Clinton’s on the Montana ballot — had no choice but to agree: “Fear is a great motivator.” She’s still excited about this race, though, and has more than 200 volunteers helping her campaign. “I met a middle-aged woman in Bozeman who, for the first time, is excited about politics because she and her partner are reflected,” Juneau says.

“The enthusiasm is extraordinary,” says Kiah Abbey, who works with the college advocacy group Forward Montana and has seen many excited Native American students on campuses. “To see someone who has gone from poverty to Harvard, that’s so cool.” Now Juneau just has to wait and see whether trying to be inspiring can also motivate new voters to the polls — or if the best you can hope for in 2016 is that fear has coattails.