Native candidates adjust campaigns amidst COVID-19

Rudy Soto shooting campaign content during COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Melanie Folwell)

Kolby KickingWoman

‘When you're having to use any sort of support mechanisms outside of face-to-face interactions with voters, it becomes a lot more expensive’ #NativeVote20

Knocking on doors, shaking hands and kissing babies.

Maybe not so much that part now but that was the campaign trail pre-COVID-19. The global pandemic has upended life for a lot of people, including those who are running for public office.

Since most states issued some sort of stay-at-home orders, Facebook events and virtual town halls are being used to reach out to constituents in lieu of personal interactions.

It’s taken some getting used to for Shane Morigeau, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, who is running for Montana’s state auditor. He announced his candidacy for the position last summer and put more than 13,000 miles on his car trekking across the Big Sky state before the pandemic shut things down.

Morigeau said campaigning can be mentally and physically draining, especially when it comes to the work-life-campaigning balance.

“I do a lot of this stuff on my own. I've had one person helping me the last month and that's been nice,” Morigeau said. “I've had staff off and on throughout and it's hard because you really want to maintain your messaging and like your personality through things, you know? And that's important to me.”

Screenshot of Shane Morigeau in zoom call. (Photo courtesy of Shane Morigeau)
Screenshot of Shane Morigeau in zoom call. (Photo courtesy of Shane Morigeau)

Similarly in Oklahoma, Carly Hotvedt, Cherokee, said she made the most progress with voters in her district for a state senate seat with in-person interactions. In the wake of the coronavirus shutdown, Hotvedt and her team had to reevaluate their strategy.

It was a tough adjustment, she says, adding that she has had to find alternatives to traditional door-to-door canvassing.

“When you're having to use any sort of support mechanisms outside of face-to-face interactions with voters, it becomes a lot more expensive,” Hotvedt said. “So we've had to reevaluate our budget. We've had to identify statistically significant ways to reach voters and have voter contact.”

Two of the ways Hotvedt has shifted her strategy is she started phone banking and using the mail to send fundraising letters, including targeted mail to tribal voters in her district which includes the city of Tulsa.

Everyone has had to adjust on the fly to life during the pandemic and one of the few things she would have changed looking back is that she would have hit the fundraising a little harder and started the Facebook political ad process earlier.

Her application to run ads on the social media site has been pending for around 10 weeks but hindsight is 20/20, she says.

“That's been very frustrating because I know some of my opponents across the aisle have been able to run ads and I have been in contact with Facebook three times through their chat feature and have had zero resolution or any sort of indication of when I can anticipate the ad disclaimer to be even approved or denied,” Hotvedt said.

Stamps on Carly Hotvedt’s laptop (Photo courtesy of Carly Hotvedt)
Stamps on Carly Hotvedt’s laptop (Photo courtesy of Carly Hotvedt)

Back west in Idaho, Rudy Soto, Shoshone-Bannock, is a first-time candidate running for the U.S. House of Representatives.

While there has been a lot of grim news lately, he’s been able to find some silver linings stemming from the pandemic. Soto says people have become more engaged and aware of how government affects them.

“It's made it to where people really recognize how important it is to have advocates in government at all levels to fight for our health and economic well-being,” he said.

Through phone calls and virtual town halls, he sees people more determined to register to vote and support candidates that will fight for tribes. Soto believes there will be a boost in voter participation because mail-in voting will be popular among voters.

“It gives people the chance to research the candidates at home, in a secure and safe environment,” Soto said. “I think it's just a net benefit for everybody, regardless of party affiliation.”

Despite running for different public offices at different levels of government in different states, courting the Native vote is a thread that is similar among these three candidates.

Morigeau visited every reservation in the state of Montana and said it’s important that Native and non-Native voters alike see you put the effort in.

“I just want people to know that this office should be working for everybody,” Morigeau said.

In Oklahoma, Hotvedt says people are aware of the tribal relations issues in the state and the role tribes play in filling the gaps where the state government falls short.

“I think there's a realization that tribes are a vital and essential partner to the long-term success of all Oklahomans, regardless of whether we're tribal or non-tribal, especially from the perspective of education, healthcare and infrastructure,” she said.

Primaries loom for all three candidates and while they remain optimistic in their chances, they each recognize nothing is certain till the final vote is counted.

Idaho extended their primary deadline by two weeks to allow for mail-in ballots to be sent and will begin to be counted on June 2. Soto is proud of the support he’s garnered through his campaign.

“I feel very, very grateful that I’ll win because of the support that I've received here,” Soto said. “Because of what my campaign is about, which is fighting for working families, people that struggle to make ends meet. Everyday Idahoans including those from rural and reservation communities that struggle to have a fair shot at the American dream.”

The Oklahoma primary is at the end of June and Hotvedt expects it to be competitive.

“I am very optimistic about my race. Senate district 35 is an open seat and it's going to be a competitive primary,” she said “I feel like I'm the most qualified candidate, and have the most diverse background. I love Tulsa.”

Montana’s primary is also June 2. Morigeau compared waiting for election results to taking the bar exam. He’s put in the work and hopes he’s earned the support of voters as they cast their votes.

“You know, like you just lay it all out on the line and hope that you have a successful result,” Morigeau said.

7 states and DC vote on June 2

Voters will be asked to navigate curfews, health concerns and a sharp increase in mail balloting as elections take place from Maryland to Montana. Four states were originally scheduled to vote in April but delayed their contests because of the coronavirus outbreak. Pennsylvania offers the day's biggest trove of delegates and represents a high-profile test case for Republicans and Democrats working to strengthen their operations in one of the most important general election battlegrounds.

Political groups have had to adjust as some states move to a system that relies largely on voting by mail. They include Montana, where all 56 counties decided to vote entirely by mail. Voting rights watchdogs in multiple states have expressed concerns about access to mail ballots, confusion about deadlines and a shortage of poll workers that could lead to long lines.

Those voting Tuesday include the District of Columbia, Indiana, Maryland, Montana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Dakota. An eighth state holding primary elections, Iowa, chose its presidential nominee early in the year and focused on other offices.

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Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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