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Montana House Race Contrast: Navy SEAL Vs. Longtime Educator

This Oct. 20, 2016 photograph shows Montana Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke waving as he campaigns for re-election as the state's sole representative in the U.S. House. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)
This Oct. 20, 2016 photograph shows Montana Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke waving as he campaigns for re-election as the state's sole representative in the U.S. House. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

BILLINGS, Mont. -- A decorated combat veteran warning about the threat of ISIS in America is being challenged for his U.S. House seat by a longtime educator who would become the first American Indian woman in Congress.

The race between Republican Ryan Zinke and Democrat Denise Juneau for Montana's only House seat reflects a broader divide playing out nationwide between Republicans focusing on foreign threats and Democrats honing in on domestic issues from education to the economy.

Zinke served 23 years as a U.S. Navy SEAL, backs Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and is seeking a second term representing the conservative-leaning state.

He casts the race as a referendum on national security, wants to ban Syrian refugees unless they undergo more stringent background checks and warns that seemingly innocent refugee children could be used as terrorists.

"ISIS is in every state," he told The Associated Press in an interview, insisting that his warnings are "not fear-mongering. It's that we need to do better."

Zinke, who was born in Bozeman and grew up in Whitefish, points to recent attacks in malls in Minnesota and Washington state as evidence the threat is real. He attributed his assertion that ISIS is present in all U.S. states to FBI Director James Comey, who said last year the agency was investigating people in various stages of radicalizing in all 50 states.

Montana has received no Syrian refugees, prompting Democrats to accuse Zinke and other state Republicans of employing anti-refugee rhetoric to scare residents and win their votes.

Juneau's backstory could hardly differ more from her opponent. A member of the Mandan Hidatsa tribes, she grew up on Montana's Blackfeet Indian Reservation, received a master's degree in education from Harvard University and a law degree from the University of Montana.

After almost eight years in charge of Montana's public schools as the state's Superintendent of Public Instruction, Juneau is running a campaign that advocates for improved education, preventing the sale of public lands and Zinke's ouster because of his strong support for Trump.

"The fact is that my opponent is out stumping for Trump and being a surrogate for him," she said in an AP interview. "This race is about who's going to put Montana's people, land and economy first."

Juneau has sought to erode Zinke's support by linking him to Republican-proposed tax credit reductions, votes against equal pay for equal work and the transfer of federal lands to states or private interests.

Zinke's campaign said the tax credit reduction proposal arose before he was elected to the House and the vote against equal pay was a procedural vote on an unrelated bill.

He's insisted he will not vote to sell of public lands and voted against transferring large areas of U.S. Forest Service land to state ownership.

Libertarian candidate Rick Breckenridge joined the race in September after the party's candidate, Mike Fellows, died in a car crash. Breckenridge said he is the alternative for voters alienated by the two major parties. He wants Congress to take a more active role in debating the U.S. role in Syria, fearing the nation will be drawn more deeply into its civil war.

Analysts have said from the start of the campaign that Juneau faced an uphill battle. A Mason-Dixon poll showed Zinke leading Juneau 53-40 percent with Breckenridge backed by just 1 percent. The fixed phone and cellphone survey of 1,003 registered likely voters was conducted Oct. 10-12 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percent.

Zinke retired from the Navy in 2008 and entered politics the same year, winning a state Senate seat. He introduced Trump during a June primary election rally in Montana and took the stage of the Republican National Convention this summer to give a speech about national security.

He has also said he hopes to be considered for a cabinet position if Trump wins the election. He previously expressed desire to be chosen as Trump's running mate.

While Zinke has called Trump's crude comments about women on a 2005 video as "wrong, wrong, wrong," he insists there is no viable alternative to Trump -- describing Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as corrupt and willing to raise taxes.

Hoping to capitalize on anti-Trump sentiment, the Democratic-affiliated House Majority PAC this week announced its purchase of nearly $500,000 of anti-Zinke television advertisements portraying him as a self-promoter who is not representing Montana's interests.

"They make decisions on hard data, so that suggests that they're seeing polls indicating the race is tightening up," said Montana State University political analyst David Parker.

The PAC's foray into Montana helps close the gap on Zinke's large lead in campaign contributions. Campaign filings showed $4.7 million raised by Zinke through September, versus $2 million for Juneau. Breckenridge said he's raised about $3,000.

The outside spending follows claims by Juneau that Zinke owes favors to special interest groups based outside of Montana because most of his campaign contributions come from out of state.

Hours after the Democratic ad buy was announced, Zinke lashed out at it.

"That's clearly outside interests trying to influence an election in Montana, really on a scale never seen before," he said. "Montanans will take that into consideration with their votes."

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