High up in the nosebleed section of the Democratic National Convention, where the North Dakota delegation sat—the party had no great electoral expectations from that state—Phyllis Howard explained her Mandan-Hidatsa tribe’s political priorities. “I think Native Americans are forgotten dual citizens,” she said. “I think state people forget.”
So her face lit up at the mention of Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota’s Democratic Senate candidate. The federal government, Howard pointed out, pays for the tribal justice and health systems and for tribal colleges, and Heitkamp, a former state attorney general who’s spent a fair part of the summer campaigning at reservations and powwows, “knows a lot of tribal people.” That’s central to electoral hopes both in Howard’s western North Dakota home of New Town—created when the Mandan-Hidatsa were forcibly relocated in the 1950s for the construction of the Garrison Dam—and in Democratic campaign offices in Washington.
Native American voters, a small percentage of the population in the Western states, are unlikely to have much effect on either the House of Representatives or the Electoral College. But this year, with a tightly divided Senate hanging in the balance, four closely contested races—North Dakota, Montana, Arizona and New Mexico—are in states with enough tribal population to have an impact, from 5.2 percent in Arizona to 10.1 percent in New Mexico. Three of the four are outside the Obama campaign’s electoral vote hopes, but all are vital to Democratic chances of holding the Senate.
“In all of those four states, we have great tribal operations,” said Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the nonpartisan National Congress of American Indians, the largest tribal political organization. This year the NCAI is running its largest-ever registration and voter outreach effort, which culminated in a Native Vote Action Week beginning September 24 that featured 110 tribes, more than 135 events and more than 35,000 participants. “Where elections are tighter,” she said, “the voice of Indian Country has a better chance of participating in the debate.”
Tribal political influence is not hypothetical. “The last time he ran, the Native vote was the swing vote that put [Senator] Jon Tester in his seat,” pointed out Montana State Senator Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, a Crow. Now Tester’s counting on that vote to keep him there. He’s not the only politician who’s benefited from the Indian vote. In Alaska, which has the country’s highest Native American concentration (14.9 percent), Indian voting was considered crucial in GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski’s upset write-in re-election in 2010 after she lost the primary. And Janet Napolitano, now homeland security secretary, was trailing in the race for Arizona governor in 2002 until the Navajo vote came in.
“It’s a crucial constituency in New Mexico,” said Representative Martin Heinrich, that state’s Democratic nominee for Senate, who during both the primary and general election campaign has focused closely on New Mexico’s tribes and pueblos. “I’ve been a big supporter of making sure the Democratic Party in the state has a tribal plan and a tribal organization.” Heinrich, who has worked on tribal housing issues in the House, added that each Native group has its own issues: “It’s not a one-size-fits-all group.”