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Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

There was a time when TV commercials defined politics. And that’s still true in many states. Turn on any commercial television station in a competitive race, and the ads are pretty much nonstop.

Do commercials work? Historically, yes. A national conservative group spent millions in 1982 to defeat Montana Democrat John Melcher. The ads packed this punch: Melcher was “too liberal for Montana.”

Melcher, a veterinarian, countered with a commercial that featured suspicious types carrying briefcases stuffed with dollars coming into Montana and cows talking about how these city-slickers were bad-mouthing Doc Melcher. “Montanans aren’t buying it, especially those who know bull when they hear it,” said an announcer, adding that the culprits “had been stepping in what they’re trying to sell.”

Melcher won by 13 points.

These days the idea of a “commercial” is quite different. On television they are still the 30-second spots that define a candidate (or their opponent). But nearly all national candidates can produce video spots that are longer, a couple of minutes or more, and tell a lot more of their story. These are stories shared for free on social media.

This election nearly 5 million ads have aired in federal races (House, Senate and president) on broadcast and national cable television since January of 2019, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks ad spending. “That volume is more than twice the volume of ad airings in the 2012 and 2016 presidential election cycles — and well above the previously record-setting midterm election ad volumes in 2018.”

Paulette Jordan, Coeur d’Alene, is running for the U.S. Senate in Idaho. Her most recent television ad is another telling of the Western narrative that was so effective for Melcher.

She talks about growing up in DeSmet. “It’s like a lot of Idaho towns, where good people have been left behind by the elites who control politics,” she says. Then she describes her opponent Sen. Jim Risch showing newspaper clippings about his wealth, and how he “made himself a multimillionaire and became one of the richest members of the Senate.”

Across the country Democratic challengers for the Senate are spending a lot more money than Republicans. But most of that is in a few states. “A trio of Democrats taking on Republican incumbents in South Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona top the list,” according to the Wesleyan Media Project. “Indeed, Jaime Harrison’s campaign in South Carolina has spent almost $4 million since early September on digital advertising. Amy McGrath, who is challenging Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, has spent almost $2 million on digital ads, with Mark Kelly in Arizona not far behind. Since January 1, Senate candidates have spent $71,852,798 on Facebook and Google ads.”

In Montana, for example, Senate candidates have spent more than $14 million on 44, 267 ads through the end of September.

Not so much in Idaho, where fewer than 200 ads have aired at a cost far below that in other states. Jordan’s best use of the medium is the hope for the spots to go viral and be shared often across social media.

Then, this is often told by Native American candidates for office. Rep. Ponka-We Victors, Ponca and Tohono O'odham, and a Democrat in the Kansas House, examines Native American women running for state legislatures across the country in her doctoral dissertation at Creighton University. The paper: “Wa’u Hanga: The Rise of Native American Women Who Pursue Elected State Office.”

One of the candidates she interviewed told her: “My family and I actually went into debt when I ran for office. I used my personal money to pay for campaign ads, mailers and radio ads. I think that is what got me elected is people seeing me on TV and hearing my voice on the radio. However, it was a big price to pay and put a financial hardship on my family.”

That captures the challenge for Native American candidates for public office, raising the money to tell their story, especially on the expensive medium of television. Yet the campaign ads by Native Americans have been growing and sharing more nuanced stories. Two years ago a social media ad was in Lakota, for Tatewin Means, who was then a candidate for attorney general. This is how minds are changed. A spot that portrays a Native woman in a professional light.

Both Reps. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, and Sharice Davids, Ho Chunk, effectively used campaign commercials to define themselves and their world view. Haaland’s message was clear. “Congress has “never heard a voice like mine.” And Davids’ ad was as iconic as the talking cows. The ad featured the former MMA fighter, ready to spar.

“This is a tough place to be a woman,” she says. “I have had to fight like hell just to survive. And it’s clear that Trump and the Republicans in Washington don’t give a damn about anyone like me or anyone who doesn’t think like them.”

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Now, of course, both Davids and Haaland are incumbents. And there is a different strategy in plan. Davids is running in a competitive district and she is using her commercial to reinforce her policy message. “Pricing medications, surprise bills, coronavirus. I've heard these and 10,000 other healthcare worries from Kansans, literally 10,000,” Davids says. “That's why health care has been my focus.”

Then it’s not uncommon for incumbents to pass on TV ads. Haaland is not running over-the-air spots. That’s also true for Republicans Tom Cole, Chickasaw, and Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee.

Some candidates, such as Yvette Herell, Cherokee, don’t mention their tribal citizenship in their campaign ads. While others use the idea as a point of pride.

Justice Rachel Montoya-Lewis, Pueblo of Isleta, says her perspective is important as Washington state’s first Native American justice. She is on the ballot for retention on the court.

Idaho Democrat Rudy Soto, Shoshone-Bannock, promotes himself as a problem solver and nonpolitician who can represent those who voted for Donald Trump or Joe Biden.

Beyond television, especially on social media, Native American candidates use their voice to sell the idea of representation. “My family knows something about Wyoming,” says Lynette Greybull, Hunkpapa Lakota and Northern Arapaho. “Our ancestors hunted mammoths here thousands a year before the founding of the equality state. It is long overdue that we actually put equality in the state.”

Paulette Jordan is not the only candidate who uses a Western narrative. In his spots, Shane Morigeau, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, picks at his Republican opponent’s inability to get a hunting license. “He's from San Diego, and that's why he couldn't get a hunting license here. Wasn't a problem for me,” Morigeau says. “I worked with both parties to protect Montana's way of life.”

Then there is the be-sure-to-vote music video made (that features Morigueau).

Foreshadow says a video on Facebook speaks to youth about the importance of voting.

“Our youth is our future,” he wrote. “They are the ones with the voices. They are the ones who will make changes for years to come.”

This Montana rap video is a long way from the days of talking cows.

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Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix.

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