Backstage before a debate between the two main candidates vying for Montana’s lone seat in the U.S. House, the moderator joked with John Lewis, the Democrat, asking whether he had brought his guitar to perform.
The Republican, Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, chimed in with his own brand of humor.
“John plays guitar,” he said. “I waterboard people.”
The comment was simply a joke, Zinke said in an email, though he acknowledged that waterboarding was part of his training. Still, the remark captures how he has tried to frame the race: a tough, decorated Navy officer versus a Washington, D.C., errand boy.
As military experience has become rarer, politicians who served have elevated it to the top of their biographies. Zinke, one of four dozen Iraq or Afghanistan veterans running for the House or Senate, has gone further than most, making it the centerpiece of his campaign.
His television ads open with him in uniform and feature timelines of him racking up combat medals and military promotions while his opponent attends school and toils away as a Senate staffer. The SEAL emblem adorns the front of his campaign bus.
“I spent 23 years as a Navy SEAL and served as a Team Leader on SEAL Team Six — the team responsible for the mission to get Osama bin Laden,” he wrote in a fundraising email in August.
The email, titled “Who killed Osama bin Laden?” didn’t mention that 53-year-old Zinke left Team Six in 1999 and the Navy more than three years before the raid on the terrorist’s compound in Pakistan.
In a state in which 13% of adults are veterans — only Alaska has a higher concentration — political analysts say going heavy on his military pedigree makes sense.
“Half the game in any House race is getting your name out there,” said David Parker, a political scientist at Montana State University. “The narrative is compelling.”
In a poll released Friday by Montana State University Billings, Zinke led Lewis 40% to 33%, with 25% undecided and 2% for Libertarian Mike Fellows. The margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points.
The race is an open contest. The current representative, Republican Steve Daines, decided to run for the Senate after Democrat Max Baucus announced he would not seek reelection.
Lewis, 36, a longtime legislative aide to Baucus, has built his campaign around land use, energy and education. He has also focused on veterans, touting legislation that he worked on with Baucus to give tax breaks to businesses that hire them.
Lewis said his opponent’s strategy is “about the past,” and that some voters have been turned off by the way that Zinke has exploited his military service for political gain — particularly his formation of a controversial “super PAC.”
Special Operations for America was set up to help defeat President Obama in the 2012 election. But after Zinke stepped down from the group and announced his candidacy, it became the biggest funder of his campaign. The arrangement has been widely criticized as a loophole in campaign finance law.
“I respect his service,” Lewis said of his opponent. “We all owe him a debt of gratitude for his service. But that doesn’t mean we owe him our vote.”
A generation ago, most politicians had military experience. The number of veterans in Congress peaked in 1977 at 77%. That figure has fallen to 20%.
The last two World War II veterans in Congress — Democratic Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan and Republican Rep. Ralph M. Hall of Texas — are scheduled to leave office when the current session ends this year.
An influx of veterans from the recent wars has not stemmed the decline. There are 16 veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan in the House — 12 of them first elected in 2012 — and one in the Senate.
Discerning the effect of veteran status on elections is difficult. Jeremy Teigen, a political scientist at Ramapo College in New Jersey, analyzed a decade of general elections for Congress starting in 2000 and found that, on the whole, veterans did no better than nonveterans.
Military service, however, may elevate a candidate’s status within a political party and make it easier to get on the ballot in the first place, he said.
Once in office, veterans tend to follow their party lines on domestic issues but are more reluctant than nonveterans to authorize use of force abroad, according to Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University who has analyzed their voting patterns.
Zinke’s main pitch to voters is that his career as a SEAL qualifies him to lead.
“A lot of what a military officer does is not just leading troops in combat,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s also doing budgets. It’s solving complex problems. If you can sit down with warlords, you can certainly sit down with different parties and folks with different interests and come out with an amenable solution.”
Zinke, who retired from the Navy in 2008, was widely seen as a moderate Republican when he served in the Montana Senate from 2009 to 2011. He has since veered right. On a campaign stop during the primary, Zinke called Hillary Rodham Clinton “the real enemy” and the “anti-Christ.”
He narrowly won the primary over two other Republicans — one of them also a veteran — who challenged his bona fides as a conservative. “I am an American first,” Zinke said. “I vote on the merit of the bill and not the party of the sponsor.”
He said that running for Congress is his patriotic duty. His platform calls for cutting government regulation, promoting energy independence and “abandoning” Obamacare in favor of something else.
He has also advocated for ground troops to fight Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
On the campaign trail and in interviews, he is most comfortable talking about defense and his patriotism. “I think veterans view life not so much from a red or blue lens but from a red, white and blue lens,” he said.