Six ways Native voters could tip control of the Senate

The Native Vote project of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters aims to improve registration and turnout in Wisconsin. (Photo via Facebook)

Mark Trahant

A closer look at Senate races in North Dakota, Arizona, Montana, Minnesota, Nevada and Wisconsin

This is a record year for Native people running for office. There are more Native candidates -- and especially more women running -- than ever before. And here we are: Forty days until the votes are counted. (And only a few days left to register to vote in many states.)

But what about the other races? Races where there is no Native American on the ballot, and where Native issues are rarely (if at all) explored.

Let’s look at six Senate races where the Native vote can make a difference, and even decide the outcome of the election.

North Dakota

North Dakota has to be at the top of any Senate list. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, against Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Republican. Both have won statewide races. Heitkamp is an independent Democrat, mostly she will vote with her party, but she votes with Trump often.

This is a philosophical race for Indian Country. Many tribal voters have promised to never vote for her again (the Native vote was critical to her win six years ago) because of what they say are her failures to leading during Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline debate. She was clearly on the side of DAPL. As Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun, Standing Rock, who ran for Public Service Commission two years ago, told the Associated Press, "We rallied so hard for her, but when her hand was forced she basically sold out to big oil." Hunte-Beaubrun said she was going to stay home.

But when it comes to Big Oil, Cramer is even more supportive than Heitkamp. His finance committee is led by Harold Hamm, one of the architects of North Dakota’s energy policy. He is chairman of Continental Resources, the biggest leaseholder in the Bakken oil basin.

So why is this race philosophical? Because it begs the question which would-be senator would be there on some issues all of the time?

Heitkamp is one of the best in the Senate on Native issues ranging from violence against women to making sure the Census counts every tribal citizen. She’s supported Native American provisions in the Farm Bill, including a Tribal Food and Security Act.

Cramer supports a few tribal issues, but his primary argument is that he is a North Dakota voice that the president listens to on energy issues. And that includes dismissing the science of global warming. He told Energy News Network: “I want voters most to appreciate the next generation of challenges and consequences of driving energy prices up artificially through manipulation of regulatory policy and methods. And that is our global advantage — in manufacturing, [in] server farms or [other] technology—that is greatly diminished when we unilaterally disarm ourselves with energy policy.”

Nearly 6 percent of North Dakotans are tribal citizens. North Dakota has no voter registration, and because of a court order, people can show up at the polls, register, and vote on the same day. But one challenge for North Dakota is rural addressing. State law requires an “address,” something that’s not uniform across Indian Country. In the most recent ruling stopping a challenge to the law, Judge Steven Colloton wrote for the U.S. 8th Circuit Court that voters still have an option: "If any resident of North Dakota lacks a current residential street address and is denied an opportunity to vote on that basis, the courthouse doors remain open.”

An earlier judge found that nearly half of all Native Americans lacked state-ordered identification to vote in North Dakota and at least 2,300 would be prevented from voting.

Still the Native American vote, obstacles or not, will continue to matter because the state is so small. The website FiveThirtyEight once called North Dakota the most powerful vote in deciding which party will control the Senate. The statistical models the site uses gives Heitkamp a slight advantage. (For what it’s worth: North Dakota was one of the states that FiveThirtyEight got wrong six years ago. Why’s that? The statistical models did not account for the Native vote.)


Native Americans were not allowed to vote in Arizona until 1970 when “English literacy” tests were finally outlawed. But that doesn’t mean that tricks are still not used to make it more difficult for Native voters to exercise their right. The latest is a measure that makes it a felony to help someone deliver a ballot (other than family members or postal workers). Think of that in the context of Indian Country: It means you can’t help an elder get their vote counted.

Most Arizonans vote early -- only 20 percent show up to the polls on Election Day -- so what the legislature calls “ballot harvesting” is a way to make it easier for people to get their votes counted. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that it was only a “minimal burden” for people to get to the polls, or send a family member, during the 27-day voting period. (A second issue was allowing voters to participate in a precinct other than their own. This makes sense in rural issues where people might live far away from where they work, such as in the Navajo Nation. But the court essentially said it deferred to state law.)

But let’s get past that and look at the Senate. Arizonans will decide on the replacement for Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican, who is not running again. The choice is between Rep. Martha McSally, R-Tucson, and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix. This will be a close race. Many consider Arizona the best chance for Democrats to take away a Senate seat from Republicans and Sinema has an early lead, but within the margin of error.

That’s why registration -- and turnout -- is so important. This Senate seat will be decided by the voters who show up, so each side is working to make sure that turnout is up from the voters most likely to support them. And in Arizona, for Democrats, that means Native American voters. In raw numbers, Arizona has 232,000 Native voters or 5 percent of the pool, according to the National Congress of American Indians Native Vote project. But what makes these votes even more powerful is they tend to vote in a bloc. Two years ago, for example, in Apache County, the Native vote for Democrats Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine was more than twice that for Republicans Donald J. Trump and Mike Pence.

Beyond party differences there is not a lot of depth on tribal issues from either candidate. This election is more about how voters feel about President Trump, the border, building a wall, and the military. The president endorsed McSally and called her an "extraordinary woman" who has "my total and complete endorsement!"


Montana is interesting because it was supposed to be a tight race. It likely will be, but not the razor thin margins that elected Jon Tester to the Senate a dozen years ago. The most recent poll shows Tester with a four point lead over his Republican opponent, Matt Rosendale.

Two big numbers from the Gravis Marketing survey: Tester leads Rosendale by double digits among independent voters, 55 to 34.3 percent. And Tester also holds double-digit edges with female voters and young voters between the ages of 18 and 29. Huge.

The survey did not reflect the Native American vote which is significant in Montana, a potential 50,000 voters. Six years ago Tester won re-election by 3,562 votes and more than 17,000 votes were cast in tribal nations.

President Trump won Montana by 20 points two years ago and has campaigned Rosendale in Billings. Vice President Mike Pence is headed to the state next week.


Nevada is another state that Democrats are hoping to flip from red to blue. But CNN points out that incumbent Sen. Dean Heller is competitive. “The fact that Heller is even competitive, though, in Nevada is a major blow to the idea that the Republican Party is bound to be in trouble because of the shifting demographics in this country,” CNN said. “It's actually fairly simple: the white population become much more Republican leaning.”

Rep. Jackie Rosen is the Democratic nominee.

Nevada’s Native population is tiny, 1.6 percent of Nevada residents,and that’s only slightly higher than the U.S. percent of 1.2 percent. However research by the Native Vote project puts the number of Native voters a bit higher, 2.5 percent. And if it’s a close election, that’s a potential voting bloc.

Most Nevada voters are not from Nevada (more so than any other state). As the Las Vegas Sun puts it: “Fewer than one in four Nevadans — 24 percent — took their first breath here.” It’s transplant cities.

On top of the small population percentage, Native Americans in Nevada have many voting obstacles. According to research by the Center for American Progress some 26 percent of Native Nevadans cited long distances to the voter registrar’s offices as one of the reasons that they decided not to register. Another 27 percent said it was a long drive just to vote. A story in the L.A. Times two years ago said one polling station was 270 miles away. "I would vote, but it's such a long drive, about two hours each way," Alissa Thompson told the Times. "I'd have to leave at 8 a.m."


Minnesota’s Native voters should be inspired. Not by any Senate race but because two Native Americans are competing to be the next lieutenant governor. Republican Donna Bergstrom, Red Lake Band, and Democrat Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Nation, are out on the campaign trail and bringing new voters to the process. That should have some impact on the Senate race.

Minnesota has two Senate races taking place (because of Al Franken’s resignation). Sen. Tina Smith, who was appointed to the seat, is hoping to hold on as a Democrat. She faces Republican Karin Housley. Sen. Smith is on the Indian Affairs Committee and she wasted no time as a newcomer sponsoring legislation such as the Justice for Native Survivors of Sexual Violence Act to help survivors of sexual violence by allowing tribes to prosecute cases of sexual assault, sex trafficking, and stalking against non-Indian offenders.

Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar has an imposing lead over her Republican challenger Jim Newberger for the second seat in play.

Vote for me! A future voter, candidate highlights the importance of the ballot box for Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, Native Vote project. (Photo via Facebook)


Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin is running for reelection in a state that is often competitive. She is facing Republican Leah Vukmir who is running as a Trump Republican and she was endorsed by the president.

“When President Trump succeeds, America succeeds,” Vukmir said. “I am honored to have his endorsement and look forward to beating Tammy Baldwin who wants to obstruct the President’s agenda at every turn. Wisconsinites want a senator who will work with President Trump to make American great again, and that’s exactly what I intend to do.”

Sen. Baldwin, among other issues, is championing the Affordable Care Act. The last “repeal bill failed by just one vote. If my opponent, Leah Vukmir, had been in the U.S. Senate last summer, she would have been the deciding vote on taking people’s health care away,” she said. “That vote would have had dire consequences for so many Wisconsin families.”

Roll Call says this race remains a toss-up. “Republicans believe Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin remains vulnerable and cite a recent Marquette poll that showed Baldwin’s lead within the margin of error. But other polls have found Baldwin in much better shape … any midterm breeze helping the Democrats should keep the Senate seat in their column.”

There is also a history of Native voter engagement in Wisconsin. The League of Conservation Voters has had a Native vote outreach for several years. “Measures passed by the Wisconsin Legislature in recent years to limit our democracy, such as making voter registration more difficult and creating the strictest photo ID requirements in the nation, have also had a negative impact on Native voters and caused confusion at polling places,” the league’s Native Vote web page said. After several years of success, the league cited the 2016 as challenging. “The Native Vote team talked with voters at community events and at their homes, collecting almost 2,400 pledges to vote and knocking on over 5,500 doors. We saw firsthand the impacts of new voter laws, like the photo ID requirements. There was confusion about how to get IDs. We saw multiple cases of laws being implemented incorrectly and confusion among poll workers, clerks, and even a chief election inspector.”

There are 35 U.S. Senate seats up for election this November (two more than usual because of special elections).

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter -@TrahantReports


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Comments (1)
No. 1-1

I can understand why Native Americans generally vote Democrat; however, I think you fail to see the big picture. The Democratic Party was once a fairly decent party but no more. It is now funded and controlled by George Soros and others like him whose whole aim is to destroy OUR America that I proudly served for 20 years in the Air Force. The Dems want to turn OUR America into a socialist/communist/fascist (whichever works best) country. Why do you think Dems support gun control? To take all guns away from law abiding citizens so they can't stop them. They want to control every aspect of our lives. The truly sad thing? America is the last bastion of freedom. If she falls, so does the world. I have Native American blood on both sides of my family and am more proud of it than the rest of my heritage but it doesn't blind me. NA's have served in the military in the past. The Apache were code talkers in WWI and the Navajo code talkers unbreakable code helped defeat the Japanese in WWII. It is a proud heritage. I'm a registered Independent and have in the past voted Democrat but no more. I don't support President Trump on everything; certainly not the DAPL Pipeline nor reducing the safe area for the red wolves. He has done some good things for America and for that I thank him. For now, he's the best we have. Hopefully, a third party will rise that will combine the best of both parties and we'll have people we can really get behind and vote for. We also need term limits for Congress.