So What Could Have Been? Who knows. But just by framing Juneau’s candidacy, just the potential of an American Indian woman at the top of a state ticket, this builds a platform for a future race. When the time is right, someone will walk on that stage – and go on to win.

What Could Have Been? Denise Juneau and the Native Political Machine

Mark Trahant
August 07, 2013


Denise Juneau said “no.” No to a run for the United States Senate. And no to the prospect of a campaign for the House of Representatives. She cited the best of reasons, two important ones being that she loves her current job – Montana State Superintendent of Public Instruction – and for her the timing wasn’t right. She made the announcement on her Facebook page.

RELATED: Denise Juneau Says No to US Senate Run in Montana

So before the newsfeed rolls around to other topics, consider What Could Have Been.

Oh, sure, Juneau could have been on the ballot and could have been elected, an American Indian woman in the House or the Senate. That is a big deal. Either Montana race would have been tough, particularly challenging in a 2014 election. But that part of the story is not unique. There will be other American Indian candidates for at least the House in this cycle, and perhaps other important offices as well.

And Juneau has already made history. She’s a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa Tribes, she grew up in Browning, Montana. And she is the only Native American who holds a statewide, constitutional office, a governor, attorney general, or her job, the state superintendent of public instruction. And she’s the only American Indian woman to hold a statewide post. Ever.

RELATED: Elections 2012: Denise Juneau: It Looks Great to Be Up Here

So why was this potential race different? Because Juneau would have been at the top of the ticket. She would have been the face of Montana in national politics. She would have been the reason people went to the polls, not just for her race, but for school boards, county commissions, the works. In most states that would be cool. But in Montana, where Native Americans are 6.5 percent of the population, it would have sent the message that Native Americans are a political force.

Loren BirdRattler, a Blackfeet tribal member, who has more than 20 years of experience working in politics and civic engagement, including the grassroots organization, Western Native Voice, told me last week before her announcement that: “This race would have the potential to change that whole school of thought, how we participate in elections and how we underwrite them.” He quickly added that he would have moved back to Montana and “worked his tail off” for her election.

The context for this election began last spring when Max Baucus decided to not run for re-election to the U.S. Senate after serving since 1978. Then the focus turned to former Governor Brian Schweitzer, who many thought would be a near-shoo-in for the office. Sen. Jon Tester even said “he’d bet the farm that Schweitzer runs.” Whoops. A few days later Monica Lindeen, the state’s auditor, passed on the race, followed on July 31 by Emily’s list president Stefanie Schriock. And now Juneau joins the list of regrets. Someone will decide to run, a former Lt. Gov., and state legislators have expressed interest, but none will start off as popular as Juneau.

Consider this: Juneau won thousands more votes than President Barack Obama did in 2012. She wasn’t all that far behind Jon Tester in terms of total number of votes, Tester won his Senate race with 236,123 votes, while Juneau won her schools’ race with 235,397 votes. She earned more votes than the Republican who was defeated by Tester.

Last month’s Public Policy Polling showed nearly 4-in-10 voters continued to rate Juneau favorably. But these polls are early and therefore hard to read. Early because none of the candidates have created their message yet to voters – and hard to read because Montana’s top races are often three-way, not one-on-one matches, because of a strong Libertarian presence. In Montana’s last Senate race, Jon Tester won with only 48.58 percent of the vote, helped by the Libertarian, Dan Cox, who polled 6.56 percent. 

And what would a Juneau candidacy have meant for Indian country?

Start by looking at how Indian country participates in elections. American Indian and Alaska Native voters have been working hard to increase registration and turnout during presidential years. But then, in the very next election, most of us stay home. So Native voters help elect Barack Obama to the White House ... and then tie his hands by staying home while our neighbors elect a House that cuts budgets beyond reason. 

This is backwards. The potential for Indian country to swing off-year elections, like the one in 2014, is far greater than in presidential years.

So in the last election, Montana’s Western Native Voice registered nearly 7,000 voters. It formed partnerships with tribal governments and tribal colleges, hired dozens of Election Day workers, and rented vans on Election Day to haul voters to the polls across the state.

But in 2010, Montana’s Native voters stayed home. That’s how Tea Party candidates won, low turnout. There’s a strong chance that turnout will be lower in 2014 than it was in 2012. In a low turnout election, a few dedicated voters can make a huge difference. So imagine what Montana’s election would have looked like if the general turnout was light, and Indian country’s turnout was off-the charts high. What if turn out from Native American communities was 70 percent, 75 percent or even 80 percent?

Even better: Few of the professional politicians would have even measured Indian country before election. The numbers would have been considered so small, that they would not have been worth bothering. After the last election, the Winston Group prepared a study about why the GOP lost in North Dakota and Montana. States that Republicans thought they should have won. The study concluded that: “In neither of these states did minorities play a significant role the way they did nationally, and younger voters decreased as a percentage of the electorate in Montana, going from 22 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2012. In exit polls in Montana, 1 out of 8 voters voted for Romney and Tester.” Indian country wasn’t even mentioned in the report. So it would have been a surprise when Indian country delivered. Again.

But the story now, one that will be much harder to shake, is that Montana will be the Republican’s best pickup opportunity for the Senate.

Another way a Juneau candidacy could have changed politics is the money. BirdRattler said there is not a culture of Native Americans giving money to political candidates, even among professionals. Western Native Voice tried to make people think differently about politics by shifting the responsibility back to voters, with slogans such as “your vote, your voice, your leaders.” He said a similar campaign could be launched with Native professionals and with that the possibility of raising “a good bit of money from Indian country.”

That’s why this race is different than most. It was not just that a Native American, a Native American woman, had a chance to win a Senate seat. It’s that Juneau has built a platform that is much larger than any single elective race. As she said on Facebook, that means Team Juneau isn’t going away. “My choice not to run this election cycle does not mean I am done with public service. Don’t get rid of your Team Juneau t-shirt just yet. There is more to come …”

It’s not fair to Denise Juneau to burden her as Indian country’s only political hope. There are many, many factors to consider in any campaign for office. And, there will be other candidates in Alaska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Minnesota, or perhaps somewhere we’re not looking. So What Could Have Been? Who knows. But just by framing Juneau’s candidacy, just the potential of an American Indian woman at the top of a state ticket, this builds a platform for a future race. When the time is right, someone will walk on that stage – and go on to win.


Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join his discussion about Indian Country & austerity on Facebook at: