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...