Denise Juneau, a member of the Mandan Hidatsa Tribes, and Montana’s two-term Superintendent of Public Instruction, is running for Congress. She’ll face incumbent Republican Ryan Zinke.
One of her first pitches is fantastic: “Denise’s Montana roots run deep. Her family’s ancestry traces back to before Montana was even a state, possibly 54 generations on this soil.”
She has many good issues to raise, including jobs. As schools’ chief, Juneau’s “Graduation Matters Montana” increased the state’s graduate rate reached its highest level ever recorded.
That’s the news.
But here is why this race is so important: Juneau can win. Think about what it will mean to have her voice in Congress. She is the first Native American woman in history to win a statewide election — and could be the first to serve in Congress.
Now the nitty-gritty. Juneau can win because she’s already earned more votes from many Montanans, 235,397 four years ago when she was re-elected schools’ chief. To put that number in perspective: The winning Montana Senate candidate only had 213,709 votes. (The huge difference is because the first number was during the 2012 election year; that’s when Juneau’s best voters will turnout.)
What’s more: Montana is changing. The population is only about 6 percent American Indian now, but if you look at the schools (where Juneau spent her days) and that number is more than double.
William Frey, a Brookings Institution scholar and author of the Diversity Explosion, has posted an interactive map that shows the changing nature of America. Wolf Point, and, Roosevelt County, Montana, shows the demographic shift as well as anywhere. This is home to the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes. For people who are old, say, 80 years old, the population is 78.5 percent white. That number drops to 63.3 percent for 65 to 79; and becomes a minority at 50 years to 64 years old. The county itself is now 57 percent American Indian — and is a majority of voters. That, plus the growth of cities in Bozeman and Missoula, make Montana much more open to voting for Democrats.
Juneau’s first challenge is money. Her opponent has already raised more than $800,000. But if Montana is seen as a “pick up” opportunity, then national money will be sure to follow. It will also be interesting to see how much money is raised from Indian Country to further Juneau’s campaign.
I think there is one more possibility: this could be a wave election. If the Republicans nominate an outsider for president — Donald Trump or Ben Carson — there will be little support for candidates across the border. And by support I mean less money and less organization.
Not only that, no matter who wins the Republican nomination, there will be a significant block of voters who see the winner as “not their kind of Republican.” The Republican Party is divided three ways. There are Tea Party folks, establishment Republicans, and Libertarians. No matter who wins the nomination, someone will be on the losing side.
I think this could be a national trend. But it’s even more likely in Montana. A 2010 study by the Cato Institute called Montana “the state with the highest Libertarian constituency in the nation.”
Democrats, on the other hand, will be united behind Juneau.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports