WASHINGTON - John Kerry's secret weapon in the presidential campaign is the
Indian vote. In fact, it could well be the only way he can get elected.
The contest between the Democratic nominee and President George W. Bush
could change dramatically if either undergoes a meltdown in the three
campaign debates. But one current snapshot of the Electoral College vote
finds that neither now has a clear majority. According to an Indian Country
Today analysis, seven of the states rated toss-ups have enough of an Indian
population to swing the outcome. If all of these seven go for Kerry and he
hangs on in at least one close industrial state, he would win by a minimum
of 272 electoral votes, a two-vote margin of victory.
This possibility apparently has not been lost on either candidate.
President Bush made the most forceful appeal of his presidency to Indian
leaders during the recent opening week ceremonies for the National Museum
of the American Indian. At a White House breakfast for tribal leaders, he
renewed a pledge of past administrations for "government-to-government"
relations with the tribes. In turn, Kerry has renewed his meetings with
tribal leaders, and his allies in the Congressional leadership have issued
a new manifesto supporting Indian issues.
The Native turnout could also deliver the second major prize in the
election, the U.S. Senate. A swing of three seats would return the Senate
to Democratic control, with U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., as the likely
majority leader. Daschle is relying heavily on the reservations of western
South Dakota in his tight race for re-election. Former Democratic Alaska
Gov. Tony Knowles is appealing for Native support in his attempt to unseat
the vulnerable Republican incumbent. The Democratic Senate candidate in
Oklahoma's current dead heat, Brad Carson, is American Indian.
According to the Sept. 29 survey by the Rassmussen Report, Bush had a solid
lead for 213 votes and Kerry for 186 votes. The toss-up states accounted
for 139, for a total of 538. (The Electoral College votes by states
according to their number of U.S. Senators and Representatives; this 18th
century mechanism still decides Presidential elections.)
The seven toss-ups with a significant Indian presence, electoral votes in
parentheses, are Colorado (9), Florida (27), Iowa (7), Minnesota (10),
Nevada (5), Oregon (7) and Wisconsin (10). They would give Kerry 261 votes,
leaving him the task of winning one of three industrial toss-ups,
Pennsylvania, Ohio or, now, New Jersey. Without this base he would face the
more difficult task of sweeping all three Northeastern contests.
Although tribal members have been conditioned to think they are the
smallest of American minorities, the 2000 election showed that even a
relative handful of votes could make all the difference. Two states then
were decided by less than 600 votes. According to a table prepared for the
National Congress of American Indians, the swing state with the smallest
percentage of Indian population, Iowa, still has nearly 6,000 eligible
Indian voters. Even this table understates the potential, since the numbers
of self-identified Indians far exceed tribal registration or even Census
Indians, furthermore, will be a wild card in the election, because they are
not likely to be picked up by conventional opinion polls. While mass media
focuses on undecided voters, the Native impact will be determined by
vigorous on-going registration drives and by turn-out. Outside of Eastern
Oklahoma, which still remembers Andrew Jackson, the Indian vote is likely
to be overwhelmingly Democratic, possibly by more than 90 percent.
The Democratic Party has an obvious strategy, to do everything it can to
energize the Native vote. The choice for Republicans is more subtle. They
can try to reassure Indians that both parties will protect their interests,
the course President Bush took at the tribal leaders' breakfast. Or they
can try to mobilize anti-Indian sentiment, a risky tactic that could
backfire, or use a variety of means to hamper or intimidate Indian voters.
Daschle has loudly accused elements of the Republican Party of trying the
second course in South Dakota primaries earlier this year. At this summer's
NCAI mid-year meeting, representatives of the U.S. Justice Department
promised vigorous enforcement of voting rights in Indian country.
In the latest Democratic Party initiative, House Democratic Leader Nancy
Pelosi on Sept. 22 issued a new agenda on Native issues under the title
"Restoring our Trust." Joined by U.S. Reps. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., ranking
member of the House Resources Committee, and Dale Kildee, D-Mich.,
Democratic co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, it pledged
to strengthen tribal sovereignty and listed a number of measures in health
care, education, housing, transportation and job creation that it
contrasted to Bush administration actions.
On the Senate side, Democratic Leader Daschle has flooded the South Dakota
and Indian press with two or three press releases a day recounting federal
grants to the nine reservations in his state. He also jabbed at his
Republican opponent John Thune for failing to set up campaign offices on
reservations. Thune lost a race against U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson in 2002 by a
margin of 524 votes provided by late returns from the Pine Ridge
reservation. Daschle twitted the state Republican Party for claiming in a
fund-raising letter that the election was "stolen," a charge fostered by
national conservative journalists but investigated and vigorously denied by
state Attorney General Mark Barrett, a Republican.
The Senate race in Oklahoma, according to latest polls a dead heat between
Carson, an enrolled Cherokee and Republican Tom Coburn, recently took a
lurid turn with news reports about a lawsuit charging Coburn, an
obstetrician, with sterilizing a young woman without her consent. Although
the 1992 suit was later dropped, the plaintiff emerged to repeat her
charges. In response, Coburn, a vocal conservative whose candidacy has
reportedly worried national Republicans, said he had sterilized "lots" of
underage women, but with their consent.
Although none of his patients are known to have been Indian, the story
revived memories of the 1920s Eugenics movement, which Native families in
several states say caused forced sterilizations of their relatives. About
100 protestors rallied in Tulsa, Okla. Sept. 24 at a speech by Vice
President Dick Cheney to publicize Coburn's remarks. According to one
organizer, JoKay Dowell, a contributor to ICT, the protestors drew "lots of
police and threats of arrest" but no media coverage.