Why the Native American Vote Could Win the Senate for Democrats

Why the Native American Vote Could Win the Senate for Democrats

Why the Native American Vote Could Win the Senate for Democrats

In four close Western races, the tribal population could tip the balance.


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.”

As Andy Barr, communications director for Arizona Democratic candidate Richard Carmona, points out, there’s a range of issues among Navajo, Hopi and Apache voters. Casino tribes have an interest in gaming, others in energy issues, but everyone cares about water, which is vital to tribes across the West. Energy is also paramount; the massive oil boom in North Dakota is largely on Mandan-Hidatsa land, while Montana Blackfoot are concerned about the environmental impact of natural gas fracking. And anybody campaigning on the reservations needs to understand the intricate issues of tribal sovereignty: how Native Americans are legally citizens of both their own nations and the United States.

A major issue sweeping across Indian Country this year is the prospect of a sharp reduction in federal spending, reflected in budgets pushed through the House by GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan; passage becomes much likelier if Republicans regain control of the Senate. The tribes may be the most federally dependent people in the country: most reservations have minimal private employment, and public education and health agencies provide many of the jobs that do exist. The idea of sharp cuts to the Bureau of Indian Affairs is unnerving.

The rest of the country is in an uproar over 8 percent unemployment, noted Stewart-Peregoy, but “for tribes, it would be great if we had 8 percent unemployment. We’re talking double digits, from 20 percent unemployment to 70, 80 percent.” Federal support is also vital for tribal colleges and for the Indian Health Service, which after years of battling budget problems was actually strengthened by Obama’s healthcare reform.

This year there’s another very specific tribal issue at stake, noted Senator Patty Murray, who as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is closely watching the four campaigns. The Senate passed a renewal of the Violence Against Women Act that expands protection for tribal women abused by nontribal members, a situation that often falls into the gap between law enforcement on and off reservations. The House has refused to take up the bill. “This has been a silent epidemic across the country,” said Murray. “Tribes have really rallied over this. It’s been a personal issue with me. I have championed this in the Senate. I have had so many Native American women come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for bringing this up.’”

The Senate is particularly vital for tribal interests, because the Senate Indian Affairs Committee is the focus of congressional tribal policy. “The most important thing to the tribes in North Dakota,” said Diane Johnson, Native American director for the Heitkamp campaign, “is that their senators sit on the Indian Affairs Committee.” North Dakota, like Hawaii, has both of its senators on Indian Affairs, and all four states are represented on it. “It is so important,” said Jacqueline Johnson of the NCAI. “That is how things get done.”

The current chair of the committee, Daniel Akaka, is retiring this year, as is Kent Conrad, whose seat Heitkamp is running to fill. If the Democrats hold the Senate, the likely new Indian Affairs chair would be Maria Cantwell of Washington, elected in 2000 in what might have been the first dramatic display of Native influence. Cantwell defeated incumbent Republican Slade Gorton by 2,229 votes out of 2.5 million cast with strong support from Native Americans, who had opposed Gorton since his efforts against tribal fishing rights as state attorney general. “She listens to our tribes,” said Johnson of Cantwell. “The tribes in the Northwest are pleased with her representation.”

In a battle for Senate control likely to be decided by a few seats, the elections in North Dakota, Montana, Arizona and New Mexico could prove decisive. Heinrich has built a small lead in New Mexico; Carmona is considered trailing but within range in Arizona; Tester is in a dead heat in Montana; and Heitkamp has surprised observers by running neck-and-neck for a seat that Democrats had largely conceded in North Dakota. And the campaigns, against three hard-line conservative Republican House members and one former House member, are about the basic nature of the federal government’s responsibilities, an issue in which the tribes have a particular stake. “If you look at the [Ryan] proposals in terms of budget cuts, tribes will be hurting,” said Stewart-Peregoy. “The poorest will get poorer.”

So Democratic candidates are running hard in Indian Country, naming tribal liaisons and campaigning on reservations. In Montana, American Indians for Tester, one of the campaign’s major volunteer groups, is co-chaired by Ryan Rusche, a Fort Peck Assiniboine, and Amy Stiffarm, an Aaniih from the Fort Belknap reservation. The New Mexico Obama campaign has a full-time Native vote director. And in Arizona, the Carmona campaign is launching a radio effort directed at tribal voters.

The stakes are equally high on the Native side. “It’s important that the tribal voice is at the table,” said the NCAI’s Johnson. At a recent campaign rally in Massachusetts—a part of the country where tribes were long ago marginalized, if not exterminated—staffers for Senator Scott Brown mocked his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren (who claims some tribal ancestry), with war whoops and tomahawk chops. In four states far to the west, however, after centuries of forced resettlement and grinding poverty, tribal voters could become not the butt of a joke, but the force that decides who controls the Senate.

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