Midterm elections: Will voters stay the course?



f, by the time our most far-flung print subscribers read this, the Republicans have kept control of the House of Representatives, a political miracle will have occurred. It would be a miracle on the dark side, however. If the GOP is to stave off what could be a landslide defeat, it would be a triumph for its arsenal of political black arts, which all too often in recent years have had American Indians as their targets. On the other hand, if the Democratic Party wins the House, the outcome predicted by history and current opinion polls, it is likely to end the careers of a few egregious Indian-fighters. Either way, Indian country has cause to watch on Election Day, Nov. 7.

Historical patterns tell us the incumbent party should face a rout in the final midterm election of a two-term presidency. Discontent inevitably builds up over time, resulting in the majority party losing seats. In fact, it’s only within the last decade that this pattern hasn’t held true. The story of this midterm has been whether anger over controversial national issues will be deflected by last-minute strategies Congress has devised in order to protect incumbents.

The standard line is that voters despise Congress but like their own congressional representative. Politicians enforce this tendency by fair means and foul, ranging from bread-and-butter constituent service to gerrymandering and outrageous campaign fund-raising and spending. Even in a landslide turnover, it’s relatively rare for incumbents to lose their seats. Republicans this year hope to keep their elections localized; they are relying on each candidate’s accumulated goodwill with constituents and keeping the conversation on local issues.

Democrats, conversely, have nationalized the campaign. The party is focused squarely on widespread public dismay over Iraq, doubts about President Bush’s competency and the low-hanging black cloud of scandal and hypocrisy which this year hangs lower over the Republican Party. Nevertheless, Democrats have a powerful ally in the constitutional tradition of checks and balances. Much of the Republican malaise looks like the result of one-party domination of Congress and the presidency.

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman told a recent George Washington University conference that this year’s was the most “nationalized” midterm election in the history of polling. The president’s low approval rating is an added drag. “No president below 40 percent has failed to lose 15 seats [in the House],” he noted, and that is the margin to switch control. But in recent memory, polls and the mainstream media, have consistently overestimated Democratic prospects. The Republicans do have two important numbers going for them: the rising stock market and the falling price of gasoline at the pumps. They both contribute to a feeling of economic relief that isn’t entirely cancelled out by the cynical thought that it might not last beyond Election Day.

It’s a telling aspect of Republican strategy that it relies so little on the strengths of the economy. Instead of touting job creation and monetary stability, the party is “playing to its base.” Its big issues lately have been a New Jersey court ruling on same-sex marriage and the construction of a 700-mile wall along the southern border, which Mexican President-elect Felipe Calderon likened to the Berlin Wall. The move is so ludicrous that even the executive branch doesn’t seem to believe in it, telling Congress it doesn’t have to hurry to appropriate the money to build it. Military historians have written that fixed fortifications are monuments to human stupidity. So is this campaign strategy.

And it has a vicious anti-Indian edge. The “illegal alien” issue reflects a fear that indigenous people, the vast bulk of the Mexican immigration, are reasserting rights to their own land. Attacks on American tribes are cropping up around the country (although in the Northeast, they frequently come from liberal Democrats). Minions of the Republican National Committee had a hand in the most slanderous of recent years, the highly publicized but unsubstantiated charges of voter fraud on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. This was a blatant attempt to intimidate a swing bloc of voters. We haven’t heard much of it this year, possibly because Republican organizers were caught in exactly the same registration abuses on a much larger scale in California. At the end of October, the Orange County District Attorney charged 11 workers in a Republican voter drive with fraudulent registration of at least 37 voters.

But this could shape up to be a bad year for the Indian fighters. Two Republican incumbents in jeopardy in Connecticut, Christopher Shays and Nancy Johnson, have been vociferous opponents of state tribes seeking federal recognition. In Oklahoma, U.S. Rep. Ernie Istook, author of several anti-sovereignty bills, left his safe seat to campaign for governor. At latest report, he is 20 points behind the popular Democratic incumbent. Add to this the Democratic drive to recruit American Indians as candidates, spearheaded by Kalyn Free’s INDN’s List, and the outcome of this election could be very gratifying for Indian country.

To be sure, the Democratic Party has its own flaws. We suspect a lot of people would vote Democratic this year if it weren’t for the Democrats. Too much of their tone seems to come from politicized (and not very funny) cable television comedians like Bill Maher and Jon Stewart. The American public doesn’t appreciate cheap shots at servicemen stationed in harm’s way, as U.S. Sen. John Kerry, of all people, has recently been reminded. It’s too bad; Kerry is one national politician who “gets” Indian causes, and his misspoken comment belies his true nature.

The American political system is designed to compensate for human imperfections. Its most important form of purification is to throw one party out of power and put in another, until it has a chance to accumulate a sufficient number of its own missteps. If all goes well, we will see this process at work on Nov. 7.