Back in May, Democratic congressional candidate Denise Juneau challenged incumbent Ryan Zinke to six public debates. Six! Zinke consented to only three during the 2014 election cycle, and he briefly withdrew from the last one. So Juneau's ask seemed a little like the sticker on a used car: you know they're going to lowball you, so you start high and hope to get what you can.
The Zinke camp was silent for a month. On June 9, Team Juneau issued a press release remarking on that silence. Later that day, the incumbent's team issued its own release, titled "Zinke Calls for Five Debates—Two in Indian Country."
Five! That's basically six. After ignoring his opponent's debate proposal for a month, Commander Zinke came back with a counteroffer that fell just short of acceptance. Just when we all thought he had committed to the same kind of reticence he showed in 2014, he made terms just different enough to constitute negotiation. Improbably, it looks like Zinke will debate Juneau every month between now and election day.
He is wise to do so. Conditions in this election are very different than they were when the incumbent Republican won his seat in 2014. Zinke came to the House from a reliably red state during a midterm election, when the president's approval ratings were 10 points lower than they are now. He backed impeachment in the primaries. But this time, Zinke does not have Obama to define himself against. To make matters worse, he is running on a Republican ticket headed by Donald Trump.
Zinke needs the debates to distinguish himself from his party's nominee. If he wants voters to read level-headedness in his military background and not aggression, he will have to disown Trump's belligerent foreign policy. If he wants to run on his reputation as a Washington outsider—a neater trick in your second term—he'll have to distinguish his kind of outsider from Trump's ignorant buffoon. If he intends to preserve his image as a no-nonsense guy, Commander Zinke must overcome a lot of nonsense from the top of his ticket.
That's going to take some sophisticated messaging. Debates are the place to do that kind of work, and Zinke has shrewdly embraced them. But as we all learned at prom, just because you embrace something doesn't mean you know what to do with it.
- photo by Alex Sakariassen
There is reason to believe that nuanced messaging may challenge the Zinke campaign yet. Consider the very press release in which they offered five debates, wherein campaign manager Evan Wilson opines that "participating in the electoral process is a civic duty, not a chance to push some political agenda."
Although I appreciate the sentiment he's going for, I submit that voting and otherwise participating in the electoral process is exactly the time to advance some political agenda. We set a time every two years specifically to do that, and now it is upon us. Despite Wilson's warning, I think we should go ahead and politicize the 2016 congressional campaign.
That sort of tone-deaf commitment to talking points is the downside of the otherwise canny communications strategy that has marked Zinke's political career. I don't know if you've heard this, but he was a Navy SEAL. In his campaign materials and his public appearance, he has advanced the idea that he is a veteran, not a politician—advanced it relentlessly but effectively, even when it made him a subject of fun. But the upcoming debates draw attention to the limitations of his strategy.
The prospect reminds us that although the commander possesses rare skills, they are not necessarily suited to the work of Congress. Zinke has almost certainly jumped into the ocean from more helicopters than Juneau, but which of them has attended more meetings, lifetime? The instincts of a soldier may not be so applicable to politics as those of an administrator, a bureaucrat, a person who runs schools.
In the coming debates, Zinke will have to both distance himself from Trump and sell voters his record not just in the Navy but in Congress. That's a lot to manage. One suspects it's why Juneau tried to get him to double his debate performances from the 2.5 he managed last time. I don't think any of us expected her to succeed so readily, but I'm glad she has.
I congratulate Zinke on seizing this opportunity to distinguish himself from the honking billionaire at the top of his ticket. This is a good year to add nuance to his political brand. Voters will find Commander Zinke less compelling with each incumbency. Now is an opportune moment for Representative Zinke to distinguish himself, as well.
Dan Brooks writes about people, politics, culture and the threat of red billionaires at combatblog.net.