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Elections 2012: Saving the Republican Brand in Indian Country

The Republican Party doubled the number of American Indian tribal members serving in Congress, from one to two. Markwayne Mullin will join Tom Cole as a member of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation. Mullin is a member of the Cherokee Nation and Cole is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation.

This, it would seem, is good news for the Republican Party and the idea of reaching out to Indian country in a bi-partisan manner.

Republicans could draw on the history of Richard Nixon and his 1970 Message to Congress proclaiming self-determination without termination (sidestepping that it was another Republican, Utah Sen. Arthur Watkins, who was the greatest champion of termination).

Republican nominee Mitt Romney even reached out, a bit, by answering questions from Indian Country Today Media Network. He said: “I respect and support the sovereignty of Native American tribes and recognize the importance of their culture to the rich fabric of this great country.”

And, just two years ago, the Alaska Native vote rallied to save Republican U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski after her primary loss.

So why did Republicans get wiped out at the polls by American Indian and Alaska Native voters?

Alaska is a prime example. In a state where Alaska Natives are nearly 20 percent of the population – a key constituency if there ever was one – redistricting cost Albert Kookesh, a member of the Tlingit Nation, his long-held seat in the state Senate. That redistricting process makes it more difficult for Alaska Natives to win, but it did make the Senate more Republican.

In Montana Democrats were swept into office, in part, because of high turnout from the state’s seven reservation communities. But it’s worth noting: Democrats worked for that vote. They traveled to all seven reservations, more than once, and asked for that vote.

Why does it matter? Why should Republicans care?

This election, and President Obama’s win, was all about demographics. The president received barely 1 in 3 votes from white males, the lowest percentage in an election without a major third-party candidate. The new coalition, on the other hand, is as diverse as America. And even more so in future elections.

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“We're not in the '50s any more,” William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer told The Los Angeles Times. “This election makes it clear that a single focus directed at white males, or at the white population in general, is not going to do it. And it's not going to do it when the other party is focusing on energizing everybody else.”

Obama carried more African-American votes than ever before in history as well as Latinos, Asian Americans, and, of course, Native Americans. He also carried women and gay voters by significant margins.

This election was won by the coalition of everybody else.

Republicans will need to figure out ways to counter that demographic reality.

In some ways that’s already happening. The Republican Party platform is one step. Montana state platform says: “The Montana Republican Party supports Native American tribes and their treaties with the Federal Government. We also support a continued economic relationship between the tribes and the State of Montana.”

In North Dakota Republican Rick Berg talked about his support of tribal issues and even cited his grandfather’s work with the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission.

But when it comes to policy there are reasons why that support doesn’t translate into votes. Nearly every Republican promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act, so the first question from Indian country was what about the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, a plank in that law. Few Republican candidates even bothered to hear the question, let alone frame an answer.

Republicans could be successful in Indian country. There are issues, such as supporting business development on reservations, that could inspire support.

But that won’t happen until Republicans show up and campaign on reservations the way Democrats do now. And, on top of that, be able to address the policy differences in a way that connects with voters.

One place to start might be real economics. In other words: spend money. What if state party conventions were held in hotels in Indian country? Spending real dollars in Indian country would send two messages: That business matters and that Indian country matters.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: