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A Republican Senate? Alaska, SD and Montana Could Provide the Answer

Is it a foregone conclusion that the Senate will go Republican in November? That’s the talk coming from many strategists in both parties lately.
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Is it a foregone conclusion that the Senate will go Republican in November? That’s the talk coming from many strategists in both parties lately.

On Fox News Sunday, Karl Rove said it’s “highly likely” that the Republicans take power. He said seven seats could shift to the GOP control in November, Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, North Carolina and West Virginia. That’s one more than the Republicans need.

Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, on NBC’s Meet the Press, is saying something similar. “There’s a real, real danger that the Democrats could suffer big losses,” he said. (Current White House officials are saying — as they should — that Democrats will hang to the Senate.)

Mark Trahant

What’s pushing this speculation is a special election last week in Florida. It’s not that Democrats lost (it was a Republican seat, anyway). It’s that Democrats didn’t turn out. If that happens again in November, then Republicans win easily.

One of the states in play, Montana, is a good example of the problem.

There are a higher percentage of American Indian voters in Montana than in any other state except New Mexico, a registration that tops 64 percent (a slightly higher percentage than white voters in Montana). This made a difference two years ago when Sen. Jon Tester and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau both won re-election. But two years before that, those same voters disappeared. Conservative candidates won easily.

So is 2014 more like 2012 or 2010? Will Native American voters show up?

Montana is raising questions for other reasons, too. Senate candidate Steve Daines, a member of the House, has visited the state’s reservations and is making his case with tribal leaders.

There is also a difference of opinion in Montana over strategy. As Stephanie Woodard wrote in Indian Country Today Media Network, a voter access organization, Four Directions, blames Democrats for not expanding satellite balloting on the reservation.

RELATED: The Democratic Party’s Indian Problem (And Guess Who’s Next?)

The good news is that it’s early. There are months ahead to sort out a Native vote strategy and engage voters. But right now, Montana Senate race is looking like a pick up opportunity for the Republicans.

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“If we lose the Senate,” Gibbs said, “turn out the lights. The party’s over.” The final two years of the Obama presidency will be one of defense, limiting the damage, instead of promoting any sort of agenda of growth.

For Indian country that means more budget cuts, GOP leadership for the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, and more whittling away of the Affordable Care Act.

That will not be a good scenario for the Indian health system. The Republican plan on health care is not fully developed yet, but don’t expect it to even address the Indian health system. The Affordable Care Act, as complicated as it is, at least leaves open a path to more money for an underfunded system. The IHS is not on the GOP agenda, but more budget cuts are.

Another “pickup” state on Rove’s list is Alaska. Here Sen. Mark Begich is running for re-election.

Again, the Alaska Native vote could be the difference between a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Republican one. Alaska Natives are a larger share of the population here than Native Americans in either Montana or New Mexico, but vote less.

An early poll last month showed Begich with a solid lead in a three-way race. This poll is premature. We don’t even know yet who the Republican nominee will be and whether there really will be a three-way race. (A three-way race in a Republican state like Alaska is a huge help to a Democrat. It splits the conservative vote.)

But one thing is certain: If Alaska Natives registered and vote in numbers similar to New Mexico or Montana, this would be a different state.

The third state with a significant Native American population on Rove’s list is South Dakota. Former Sen. Tom Daschle credited the reservation vote for propelling him into office — and that would have to happen again for Democrats to win.

And, like Alaska, a three-way race could change the outcome in South Dakota. Former Gov. Mike Rounds is the top draw in the Republican primary and will face Democrat Rick Weiland. But former U.S. Senator Larry Pressler is running as an independent (first expressing interest to Tim Giago for a column last year.) Pressler is interesting. He was a Republican, voted for Obama, and would throw a huge question mark into the South Dakota election.

But will Pressler take more Republican votes or Democratic ones? Or does Pressler have a chance to win from the middle? 

A lot of questions to be answered before November.

Mark Trahant is the 20th Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is a journalist, speaker and Twitter poet and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Comment on Facebook at: