No Middle Ground for Indian Country in This Election

The 2018 election year started on an optimistic note: “Pueblo woman. Mom. Gourmet cook. Runner. It’s time to add member of Congress to that list … And what makes this news especially cool: This is a winnable seat.”

That was written in May 2017. A lot has happened since then. But Deb Haaland is still working hard to capture that “winnable seat.” And, as I also pointed out, more than a year ago, “there’s no reason why there won’t be several more Native American women, and men, running as a challenge to the Trump White House.” And that’s exactly what is happening this year.

There are more than a hundred Native American candidates — including 54 Native women — running for office. Most (not all, but most) are challenging the policies of the now two year-old Trump White House.

Deb Haaland is not alone. There is a good chance on Wednesday there will be at least two Native women who carry the title, Representative-elect. Possibly even three.

But let’s not get ahead our ourselves. There are still ballots to cast and miles to go.

This election represents a real choice between candidates who support the policies of President Donald J. Trump — especially those on oil and gas development — versus those who favor a more progressive, inclusive government. This is not an election for the middle ground.

President Donald J. Trump is making his case across the country that voters should elect Republicans who support his agenda. But it’s not an easy sell. A new Harvard Harris poll showed that Trump voters are more closely aligned with the president than the party. Nearly half, 46 percent, of registered Republicans said they support Trump compared to only 25 percent who support the party itself.

Crow Tribal Chairman A. J. Not Afraid last week endorsed Republican candidates for the US House and Senate and sat behind President Trump at a rally this weekend. Not Afraid said in his Senate endorsement that he supports the president’s energy agenda. But as the Billings Gazette pointed out, even President Trump’s policies will not save coal. “Crow coal is in trouble. Mining company Westmoreland Coal, which operates Absaloka Mine, filed for bankruptcy last month. Its royalty payments to the Crow Tribe have fallen dramatically in recent years as the US coal economy soured,” the Gazette said. “Two years ago, Westmoreland threatened to shutter the tribe’s mine unless Crow leaders agreed to a cut in coal proceeds. The tribe agreed to cut its tribal severance tax by 85 cents a ton through the end of 2016 and then by $1.10 a ton from January 2017 to December 2018. A 40-cent-per-ton cut to tribal gross proceeds was also granted to keep the mine afloat. The loss in Crow tribal government revenue was seven figures.”

But the Democrats have their draws on the campaign trail, too. Former President Barack Obama is making the case for his party. “Republicans are all, look, the economy is so good. Where do you think that started,” Obama said. “When did that start?”

No middle ground. And that’s true with the candidates from Indian Country, too. Let’s look at the numbers.

Sixteen Republican #NativeVote18 Candidates

There are 103 #NativeVote18 candidates on my list (down one because of the withdrawal of the Independent Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and former Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot). So what does “mostly” Democrat look like? There are only 16 Republicans running with tribal citizenship. And even that number is a bit complicated because some of the more high profile candidates rarely talk about their tribal affiliation because they say it’s identity politics. But that’s not all. Andria Tupola, Native Hawaiian, is running for governor of Hawaii and makes the case for community that transcends the ideology of most Republicans.

“I definitely feel like there needs to be a voice for Native Hawaiians at this point,” Tupola recently told me in Washington.

Tupola is an important candidate — win or lose — because she represents a Republican party that is not Trump. One that bridges gaps, rather than stretches divides. “I didn’t get involved just because I wanted a new career,” she said. “I have a career. I’m a music professor and I think that that message is why they’re saying that it’s the new face of the Republican parties because we need to start to get rooted in our desire to help our people.”

A desire to help. That’s a theme you hear often from candidates who are defying the labels handed to them. If Tupola — and candidates like her — represents the future of the Republican Party someone ought to tell the party leaders. “I’m hoping that the party says they want younger, diverse candidates to run. Then put your money where your mouth is. If this is the future of the Republican Party, they get behind that.

Then the present also has a Republican identity: The only two tribal citizen in Congress now are both Republicans. Oklahoma’s Rep. Tom Cole, Chickasaw, and Rep. Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee.

Voting Suppression

Republicans have also inspired a lot of people to vote this year by overreaching on voter suppression. A court action that affirmed the voter ID law in North Dakota inspired the state’s tribes to organize, issue tribal IDs, and because of that, reservation voter turnout could be significant. The Spirit Lake Tribe said it issued some 500 IDs. Turtle Mountain reported another 1,100 IDs. Standing Rock reported 650 new IDs and 350 absentee ballots. And the state’s largest tribe, the Three Affiliated Tribes, has been issuing IDs and its tribal election is on the Tuesday as well.

There are also more legal challenges ahead. A US District Court judge allowed six Spirit Lake citizens to vote without the ID, but declined to block the law so close to the election. According to the Bismarck Tribune: “The individuals include a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe who was denied an absentee ballot because the county auditor said his residential street address did not match the one in the North Dakota Department of Transportation database.”

Native North Dakotans are 5.3 percent of the state’s voting population.

But North Dakota is not the only state where this issue impacts the Native vote. A survey by the Native American Rights Fund said Arizona and New Mexico should fix their registration system by including space for a map to be drawn on voter rolls. “Too many respondents experienced a problem in accurately describing their home location,” NARF reported. “Any improvements would have an impact on both registration accuracy as well as the ability of third-party groups to mobilize voters using more accurate lists.”

She Represents

The 2018 election is defined by women. Women as candidates. Women marching. Organizing. And women voting.

The gender gap — the different voting patterns between men and women — shows a margin of 17 points favoring Democrats over Republicans according to a new Quinnipiac University poll.

And more women than men have voted early in key battleground states like Georgia (56 percent); Texas, Florida, and Tennessee (all 54 percent); Nevada (53 percent) and Montana (52 percent).

And 42 percent of all Democratic nominees for House, Senate, and governor are women, compared to just 14% of Republican nominees. For Congress overall, Democrats have nominated 198 women to Republicans’ 59.

“The level of enthusiasm among women is going to bear directly on Democratic success,” said Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia told Axios. “If there is a ‘blue wave,’ that will exist in part because of women.”

The poll found that voters say, by a 71 – 20 percent margin, including 51 – 36 percent among Republicans, that they would like to see the US Congress be a check on the president. That shows up on “their” candidates, too. “If the election for the US House of Representatives were held today, 50 percent of American voters say they would vote for the Democratic candidate, as 41 percent say they would vote for the Republican candidate,” the poll showed.

And by a wide margin, 78 – 15 percent of those polled do not like the way Congress is handling its job.

Native women are making a difference in Indian Country, too. This is the first election where a majority of the candidates from Indian Country are women. And most of those are Democrats.

You also see this trend reflected on Facebook. Constituents and voters are posting this idea often. This from a woman supporting Debra Lekanoff, Tlingit,who is running for the state legislature in Washington. “I am inspired and humbled by the women running for election,’ she wrote. “Debra Lekanoff … I love you and respect your wisdom and passion for people.”

Again pull back the lens, beyond Indian Country, and there is a larger pattern.

Kelly Dittmar, writing for Gender Watch, a nonpartisan blog, said that 2019 could see the largest freshman class of congresswomen since 1993.

“From Election Day in 1992 to Inauguration Day in 1993, the number of women in Congress increased by 22 (from 31 to 53) and the percentage of women across both chambers jumped from 5.8 percent to 9.9 percent, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Contributing to this rise in women’s representation was the success of 28 non-incumbent women to the US House and Senate, a record for women newcomers that has held for over two decades,” she wrote. The potential on Tuesday is to elect the most women in any election year since 1992.

“Also notable is the diversity among the non-incumbent women who could be elected to Congress,” she wrote. “Of the 24 women favored to enter the House for the first time in 2019, nine are women of color — including the first Native American woman to serve in Congress, the first Latina to serve in the Texas congressional delegation, and the first women of color to represent Connecticut, Kansas, Massachusetts and Minnesota in our nation’s capital. Two women favored to win next week — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is running to represent New York in the House, and Abby Finkenauer, who is running to represent Iowa — would also become the youngest woman elected to Congress, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan are likely to become the first Muslim women to serve in the US House or Senate.”

Indian Country has three potential “firsts.” Haaland in New Mexico’s first congressional district, Yvette Herrell, Cherokee, in New Mexico’s second congressional district, and Sharice Davids, Ho Chunk, in Kansas’ third congressional district.