With a firm 54 percent lead in hand, Rep. Ryan Zinke spent much of Election Day evening talking about what he planned to do in his second term representing Montana in the U.S. House.
"The big challenge is how we heal and unite," Zinke said before taking the podium. "This is an American issue when the national anthem becomes political, when law enforcement isn't respected - we're going to have to unite as Americans."
About 150 supporters gathered in the Lodge at Whitefish Lake to watch the national poll results with Zinke and several Flathead County legislative candidates. The room grew increasingly jubilant as the presidential vote solidified around Republican Donald Trump. By 10:30 p.m., many were already heading home before Zinke made his public remarks.
The first-term GOP incumbent held a 57 percent to 40 percent lead over Democrat Denise Juneau, who garnered national attention for her historic bid for national office. Juneau would have been the first Native American woman elected to Congress.
About an hour after Juneau took the Top Hat stage, she released a statement conceding the race to Zinke.
"Sometimes, results don’t go the way we want them to, and it’s OK to be disappointed," Juneau said in an emailed statement. "But, we should not be discouraged. We need to pick up the pieces and continue our work to make this world a better place.
"I just called Congressman Zinke to congratulate him on his re-election, and I wished him the best. I hope that after this long campaign he will truly work to represent all of us as our Congressman."
Acknowledging that Montana ranks No. 1 in the nation for political ticket splitting, Zinke said he was ready to work with Gov. Steve Bullock and the rest of the state leadership. He was also interested to see how the House of Representatives settled its leadership order.
"We'll have to see where (Speaker of the House) Paul Ryan is," Zinke said. "He did endorse Trump, but then the narrative he followed afterward was not very strong. He's got to convince the caucus that he's capable of leadership."
As to his own ambitions, Zinke said he'd wait to see which way the wind was blowing.
He said he was more focused on infrastructure issues in Montana, including improvements to Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, national forest amenities and other public lands.
About 150 people gathered at the Lodge at Whitefish Lake to watch the results and greet Zinke. They cheered as North Carolina was called for Trump, and again when Idaho reported in with 83 percent in favor of the Republican candidate. The cheers got even louder when Wisconsin went in the GOP column.
"It's time to show leadership," Zinke said. "It's time to put politics in the back seat."
A Republican has held Montana’s House seat for two decades.
The election for the House seat came one day after the anniversary of Montana’s Jeannette Rankin being elected to Congress in 1916 – the first woman ever elected to Congress.
After 23 years in the U.S. Navy SEALs, Zinke served one term as a state senator. In 2012, he ran for lieutenant governor, but failed.
He snagged Montana’s House seat in 2014 with a 55 percent win over Democrat John Lewis and Libertarian Mike Fellows. He filled a seat left vacant by Republican Steve Daines, who resigned to run successfully for his current U.S. Senate position.
Juneau has termed out after serving two terms as Montana’s state schools chief. During that time, graduation rates have increased to a record high of 86 percent. She started out as a high school teacher for seven years before moving on from education to law in 2004. After working as division administrator at the Office of Public Instruction, she was elected to lead OPI in 2008.
In a Montana State University Billings poll conducted Oct. 3-10, Zinke held a 19 percent lead over Juneau, with 19 percent undecided. A Lee Newspapers poll conducted Oct. 10-12 found that lead had narrowed, with Zinke holding a 13 percent lead over Juneau, and 6 percent undecided.
Analysts predicted that gap would be hard for Juneau to close in the final weeks.
This has been the most expensive House race in recent Montana history, with both campaigns raking in about $8.13 million through Oct. 19. Zinke took heat over the fact that 84 percent of his donations came from out of state, with critics saying he doesn’t truly represent Montanans. Juneau has received 58 percent of her contributions from out of state.
Zinke is vocal about military decisions, anti-terrorism tactics and the vetting process for refugees – all topics that voters pointed to as the top issues in the Lee Newspapers poll. Juneau, on the other hand, spent much of her campaign on the attack.
In the final two weeks, the House Majority PAC, a national Democratic group, poured nearly $500,000 into TV ads attacking Zinke.
During debates this fall, Zinke and Juneau often traded barbs over natural resources, public lands and comparisons to their party's presidential candidates. Both have said they're pro-coal, though Zinke jabbed Juneau at a Sept. 1 debate for a 2010 state Land Board vote against the Otter Creek coal development. Juneau fired back, pointing out her vote to expand the Signal Peak coal mine in 2014.
At their first debate days earlier, they sparred over each other's advocacy for Native Americans. Zinke has said he's the right person to represent Indian Country, pointing to his roots in eastern Montana, a region he said "oftentimes gets ignored." Juneau, a Native American herself who grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation, tied Zinke to Trump, who many view as anti-Native — which prompted Zinke to rebut and link Juneau to Clinton, calling them both liars.
Libertarian Rick Breckenridge, a surveyor from Proctor in rural Lake County, wound up with 2 percent of the vote as of 10 p.m. Tuesday. Breckenridge was a late addition to the race, coming in after Libertarian candidate Mike Fellows died in a car crash Sept. 19 following a political forum in Seeley Lake.
Go to missoulian.com for the latest results.