Montana’s Native Vote Could Decide US Senate Control

By Stephanie Woodard, Indian Country Today Media Network

The decision of U.S. Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana) not to run in 2014 means that the state’s Native vote could be very important next year. Just as tribal members pulled Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) across the finish line in his neck-and-neck 2012 race, they may decide the upcoming contest, says Blackfeet tribal member Tom Rodgers, of Carlyle Consulting and voting-rights group Four Directions. That, in turn, will help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. “If the 2014 senatorial race is anything like 2012, there may be a two-to-three-point difference between the candidates, and the Native vote can easily make the decision,” Rodgers says.

Native influence will be even greater if an ongoing lawsuit (Mark Wandering Medicine v. Linda McCulloch, now before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals) to require satellite election offices on Montana reservations succeeds, according to Rodgers. “With satellite registration and voting, Indian turnout will skyrocket—and the only way to get political power is to affect political outcomes.” (Related story: NCAI, DOJ Weigh in on Behalf of Native Voting-Rights Plaintiffs)

Both major parties see the potential of the Native vote. The Montana GOP is talking to the Republican National Committee about funding a staff position to do outreach in tribal communities, according to state party executive director Bowen Greenwood. “When a race is close, every vote counts,” says Greenwood, who argues that Native beliefs in tradition and caring for the land and their desire for economic development match Republican ideals.

The Montana Democratic Party has long had voter-registration, get-out-the-vote and voter-protection efforts in Native communities, spokesperson Chris Saeger says. “Increasing participation in American Indian communities will always be a top priority for us. We are confident that we’ll hold Senator Baucus’s seat, because we have a deep bench [of candidates] and a strong record in statewide elections.” (Related story: Montana Democrats Rebuff Native Voting-Rights Lawsuit)

Baucus will be missed in Indian country. “We are very sad to lose Senator Baucus’s leadership. Federal policy is often imposed on tribes, and we rely on our representatives in Washington to advocate for us,” says Gordon Belcourt, Blackfeet, executive director of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council. “And since both major parties want to reach out to tribes in the race to replace Senator Baucus, they should both support the on-reservation satellite voting offices we’re requesting via the lawsuit.”

Four Directions legal director Greg Lembrich, of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, says his organization wants both parties to embrace the Indian vote. On that front, Belcourt offers some advice to would-be senators, and to the parties as a whole: When they arrive on reservations, they will face pointed questions about their platforms and policies and will need to produce well-thought-out action plans to deal with issues like decades of high unemployment—in the 50 to 80 percent range for the tribes his group represents—and the effect of sequestration on programs that are already severely underfunded, such as the Indian Health Service. “It’s not a question of Democrats v. Republicans for Native people; it’s how the candidates address the issues.” (Related story: Montana Taxpayer Questions High Cost of Battling Against Native Voting Rights)

Belcourt says Baucus was “very receptive” to meeting with tribal leaders, so in the upcoming race for his seat, a record of personal involvement is going to count a lot with the tribes.

Lembrich notes that in 2014 Indian country will also be pivotal in South Dakota, where Senator Tim Johnson, a Democrat, has announced his retirement, and in Alaska, where Democratic Senator Mark Begich faces a tough race. “With no presidential race to distract anyone, we’ll see media saturation and lots of feet on the ground registering voters and getting them to the polls.”

Hanging over all this, he adds, is the U.S. Supreme Court’s upcoming Voting Rights Act decision (Shelby County v. Holder), and a Native voting-rights suit in South Dakota (Chris Brooks v. Jason Gant). “We have some real drama ahead surrounding voting equality for tribal members.”