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Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

Already on pins and needles over the presidential race, COVID-19 developments and growing social and racial unrest, voters may face a divided Senate after the election.

Like everything else about this election, the Senate races are volatile and uncertain.

Republicans currently lead the Senate with 53 seats, compared with 47 Democrats and two independents. If the Democrats manage to win four of the 35 available seats, they can control the Senate.

If the split is even, however, woe is the new president as he tries to govern a governmental body in which one Senator could determine the fate of key legislation.

In the case of an even split, the party that holds the White House runs the Senate; the vice president — according to Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution — can cast a vote to decide any ties.

Once again, as in the presidential election in which Native voters could influence the outcome in important swing states, they could also have a pivotal impact in several important Senate races.

Swing state, swing county, swing tribe

North Carolina, also a swing state, is shaping up to be among the most surprising and interesting battlegrounds. The race between incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and opponent Cal Cunningham, a Democrat, has attracted a great deal of political campaign focus on Native voters in a state that seems incongruent compared to the whole of Indian Country.

According to its website, the Lumbee Tribe, with over 55,000 citizens, is not only the largest tribe in North Carolina but also the largest east of the Mississippi. The tribe, recognized by the state, has been fighting for federal recognition for years. Nearly every politician, both Republicans and Democrats, with a stake in next week’s election has come out to strongly support federal recognition for the tribe.

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Tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr. describes the Lumbee — based in Robeson County, one of the country's most diverse areas — as a swing tribe that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 after years of traditionally voting Democratic. 

Lumbee member Horace Locklear told The Associated Press in 2017 that he supported Barack Obama but later voted for Trump because of Trump's plans for the economy, and because he didn't want to vote for Hillary Clinton.

(Related: Native vote plays powerful role, especially in swing states)

Native Americans make up Robeson County’s largest population group, according to the Fayetteville Observer. So far, the county has 26,500 Native American registered voters out of the state’s total 7.3 million voters.

In 2009, Barack Obama won North Carolina by only 14,177 votes. In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton 50.8 percent to 46.5 percent.

Both Trump and Joe Biden recently issued statements announcing their support for recognition. Last week, the president traveled to Robeson County in what may have been the only time during this campaign that he has visited an individual tribe.

According to political pundits, wins in the Senate and presidential races in North Carolina are critical for both parties.

Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, left, and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. talk during a televised debate Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020 in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, Pool)

Despite Cunningham’s recent involvement in a scandal over romantic texts sent to a woman who is not his wife, both he and Biden continue to hold a slim lead in the state.

In an additional twist, some federally recognized tribes, including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians oppose Lumbee recognition. The Eastern Cherokee are the only federally recognized tribe in North Carolina; in addition to the Lumbee Tribe, North Carolina has another six small state-recognized tribes.

Richard Sneed, the Eastern Cherokee’s principal chief, in January testified against federal recognition for the Lumbee before the U.S. House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples.

According to Sneed, the Lumbee Tribe has claimed descent from the Cherokee tribe in the past.

(Previous: Lumbee Tribe recognition bill gains support)

“We are Cherokee not because we woke up one day and decided to be. We are Cherokee because we always have been, from time immemorial. As the elected leader of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, I represent a nation of citizens who are the direct descendants of those who survived one of the most calculated genocides in the history of mankind, the Trail of Tears. When a group of people falsely claim our identity, whether it’s to gain fame, financial gain or federal recognition, it is our duty and responsibility to defend the identity, our grandmothers and grandfathers.”

According to the Lumbee Tribe’s website, they trace their heritage to “various Siouan, Algonquian and Iroquoian-speaking tribes.”

In written testimony before the Committee on Indian Affairs, Lumbee Chairman Godwin said: “The Lumbee tribal government views federal recognition as an opportunity to create a solid economic foundation that will ensure a better future for the next seven generations of our people.”

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After Trump announced his support for the Lumbee Tribe, Sneed released a statement in which he wrote, “Tis the season when politicians of all stripes make desperate promises to get votes, but pandering has reached new levels with the embrace of legislation to extend federal recognition to the Lumbee in North Carolina.”


Arizona, also considered a swing state in the presidential election, is facing a close Senate race between Republican incumbent Martha McSally, who was appointed to serve in former Sen. John McCain’s seat, and Democratic challenger Mark Kelly. McSally is running in a special election seeking to serve out McCain’s term, which would have ended in 2022. Kelly is leading significantly in terms of fundraising and voter polls.

Kelly has visited the Navajo Nation several times during the campaign and released a radio ad in which he introduces himself in the Navajo language. He appointed Democratic state Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai to serve as campaign treasurer. Peshlakai, of the Navajo Nation, is one of the first Native women to serve in the Arizona Legislature.

Like Trump, McSally claims credit for including tribes in the COVID-19 relief funds that were whittled down from $200 billion to $20 billion; she also urged the administration to give tribes more time to use the funds.

Democratic challenger Mark Kelly, left, and Republican U.S. Sen. Martha McSally prepare for their Senate debate, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, in Phoenix. (Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic via AP, Pool)

The New York Times and other media outlets have characterized Trump’s endorsement of McSally as lukewarm, pointing to his recent rally in Arizona where he quickly rushed her offstage, barely giving her time to make comments.

Native Americans make up 5.6 percent of eligible voters in Arizona, a state that has been reliably Republican in the past but is now considered a key swing state.


“Democratic candidates in Montana are more prevalent in Native communities,” said Marci McLean of the Blackfeet tribe. McLean is executive director of Western Native Voice, a voter and social justice advocacy organization in Montana.

A close ally of Trump, Republican incumbent Sen. Steve Daines is defending his seat against Democratic challenger Gov. Steve Bullock. Considered one of the nation’s most popular Democratic governors, Bullock won reelection in 2016 despite Hillary Clinton’s overwhelming defeat in the state.

In an op-ed published in the Billings Gazette, Rhea Real Bird of Crow Agency noted Daines’ support of cuts to nutrition assistance and his desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which reauthorized the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act. Montana’s Native American Caucus also urged Daines to oppose confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. Daines voted in favor of her confirmation.

FILE - In this Sept. 28, 2020, file photo, Gov. Steve Bullock, left, and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., prepare their notes before the beginning of their televised debate at the KUFM-TV studio at the University of Montana in Missoula, Mont. Political groups fighting for control of the U.S. Senate have poured more than $118 million into the contest between Bullock and Daines. For Montana residents, it means an unrelenting barrage of advertisements any time they turn on their computers, televisions and radios or open their mailboxes. (Ben Allan Smith/The Missoulian via AP, File)

Approximately 25,000 to 30,000 Native Americans voted in the 2016 and 2018 federal elections, the newspaper reported. In 2018, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester won by 17, 913 votes, and Gov. Steve Bullock won by 19, 818 votes.

Although Daines expressed support for a Billings office opened by Trump’s Operation Lady Justice Task Force to address high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women, McLean notes that Bullock supports delving into the deeper causes of the epidemic.

“Bullock wants to go beyond hiring one person to create a database. He wants to address the root causes of missing and murdered Indigenous women, such as historical trauma and poverty,” she said.


Although Alaska has traditionally been a solid Republican state, nonpartisan Senate challenger Al Gross has been running an innovative and popular campaign against incumbent Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan.

Using a strategy called relational organizing — in which organizers rely on existing relationships to drive voters, rather than the traditional approaches involving door knocking, phone calls and texts — Gross has mounted a strong opposition to Sullivan.

He has been praised for outreach in Alaska Native communities and opposition to the Pebble Mine.

Al Gross, right, an independent in Alaska’s U.S. Senate race, gestures during a debate with Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Anchorage, Alaska. Sullivan participated remotely, as the Senate prepares to vote on President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee in Washington, D.C. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media via AP, Pool)

In a recently released series of recordings made by environmentalists posing as investors, mine executives brag about their power over Alaska’s senators and governor.

In one taped phone call, former Pebble CEO Tom Collier implied that Sullivan would not oppose the mine after the election. Alaska tribes have been united in their opposition to the project.

According to Project FiveThirtyEight’s polling tracker, Sullivan has a 3-point lead over Gross.

More than 17 percent of voters in Alaska are Native American or Alaska Native. 

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Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.

WATCH ELECTION NIGHT WITH INDIAN COUNTRY TODAY. Our live news broadcast starts at 8 p.m. Mountain Standard at #NativeVote20 #NativeElectionNight