Political Forecast: Continued Stormy Weather

Gale Courey Toensing
11/14/11

Here’s something to ponder: The congressional and presidential election campaigns next year are likely to spend around $8 billion – more than the federal government’s budgeted amounts for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Indian Health Service (IHS), Indian education and Indian housing combined.

Here’s something else to think about: Sixty percent of the new senators and 40 percent of the new representatives elected in 2010 have personal wealth of $1 million or more.

Those factoids – awful or admirable, depending on one’s perspective – were just a few of the many attention-getting statistics in Eric Eberhard’s presentation, “Political Landscape Overview,” at the United South and Eastern Tribes annual meeting at Choctaw November 6 -10. Eberhard is a Distinguished Indian Law Practitioner in Residence at the Law School at Seattle University. He has been practicing Indian law since 1973 and has represented Indian tribes, organizations, individuals and entities doing business with Indian tribes in federal, state and tribal judicial, legislative and administrative forums. He is highly regarded throughout Indian country.

Eberhard analyzed elements of the 2010 elections and what is already known about the 2012 races to present an assessment of what’s ahead. “The 2010 elections really set the stage for what’s going to happen next year,” Eberhard said. “Obama called it a ‘shellacking,’” Oddly, despite the extent of the Republican victories in the House, Senate and at the state level in 2010, there was not major party realignment – voters continued to dislike both parties just about equally, Eberhard observed. But Republican voters continue to be more engaged in the process, which along with other facts is leading him to believe that what’s past may be prologue. “It’s the same phenomenon going on now as in 2010 except the gap is bigger; 58 percent of registered Republicans say they’ll vote; only 45 percent of registered Democrats say they’re going to vote. If it plays out that way, the Republican nominee is most likely the next president.”

The next president may appoint as many as four Supreme Court justices whose decisions affect everyone’s lives, Eberhard noted. The average retirement age on the court is 80; Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy, now 75, were appointed by President Ronald Reagan. President Clinton appointed Justices Stephen Breyer, 73, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 78. President George H.W. Bush appointed Clarence Thomas to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall, the country’s first African American Supreme Court justice, who ended legal segregation in the United States and won victories breaking the color barrier in housing, transportation and voting. President George W. Bush appointed Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito to replace Justices William Reynquist and Sandra Day O’Connor, respectively. “If you think about the elections that occurred in that time period and how much the appointments might have gone differently with different presidents, you can see the power involved here,” Eberhard said.

Democrats went into the 2010 House elections with a 77-seat advantage – 255 to 178 Republican seats – and came out with a 49-seat loss – 193 Democrat-held seats to 242 Republican seats. Going into the 2010 elections, Democrats had 57 Senate seats, Republicans had 41, and Independents had two. Now Democrats have 51 Senate seats, Republicans have 47 and Independents have two. What drove the 2010 elections? “Unemployment, the economy, anger at the government, the intensity of electors voting Republican – they turned out in large numbers. Thirty-three percent of those who voted in 2008 stayed home. That made a huge difference. Eighty percent of those who voted in 2010 were white and overwhelmingly old,” Eberhard said.

Additionally, women, who usually vote overwhelmingly Democrat, split their vote evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Forty-three percent fewer African Americans voted in 2010. Hispanics and young people turnout was down by almost 55 percent, Eberhard said

Another factor in the 2010 elections was the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizen’s United v. Federal Election Commission, Eberhard said. The controversial 5-4 ruling granting “personhood” and First Amendment rights to corporations said the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections. The ruling resulted in a flood of funding for independent expenditure campaigns. Groups aligned with Republicans outspent groups aligned with Democrats by 2 to 1 and most of the groups were new organizations formed after 2008 with the intention of taking back Congress and the White House, Eberhard said. “One of the big changes was 60 percent of new senators and 40 percent of new House members have personal wealthy of $1 million or more. We’re coming to the point where you have to be a millionaire to run for office in this country,” Eberhard said.

The trend continues and these “non-profit” organizations are poised to spend even more money in 2012. “It’s quite likely in the congressional and race for the White House that you will see spending in the magnitude of $8 billion for 2012. Eight billion dollars. That’s more than the entire budget in 2012 for the BIA, IHS, Indian education and Indian housing,” Eberhard said.

Going into 2012, the polls are “terrible,” Eberhard said. Twenty-six percent of voters think the country is moving in the wrong direction. President Obama has a 41 percent approval rating. “No president has been reelected on that kind of a number in history,” Eberhard said. “Congress – this is just stunning – has a nine percent approval rating and 84 percent disapproval. Congress can’t be reelected under those kinds of numbers.”

Eberhard warned that voter suppression efforts will potentially impact Indian country. Voter laws have changed in 14 states making it more difficult for poor people and people of color to vote, he said. “Have your tribal lawyers check out what the voting laws are. Tribal IDs are not going to be sufficient. It’s not going to be sufficient to take in your utility bill. You’re going to have to have state-issued ID with your photo on it. This is all being controlled in state legislatures and state houses that are Republican,” Eberhard said. Legislators are shortening the period for early voting and tightening the rules for absentee ballots, “The bottom line is somewhere between one and five million people will be disenfranchised in 2012 because they won’t meet the new requirements, so it’s important to educate tribal citizens,” Eberhard said. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School said in a new report that the new restrictions will have the biggest impact on “young, minority and low-income voters, as well as voters with disabilities.” The report is available here.

During the discussion, Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter called for “a more balanced strategy” with regard to Indian country’s relationship with the political parties. “I feel as though we’re hurting ourselves by being so perceived as partisan for the Democrats. I’m not a Democrat or a Republican. I’m the president of my nation and my concern is the best interests of my people,” Porter said. “I’ve seen this for years that at the National Congress of American Indians and the USET level we’re too perceived as being in the pocket of the Democrats and we are largely written off when the time comes when we need Republican support. With the government divided the way it is now, we can’t afford to be so partisan.”

Porter reminded the group that it was Republic President Richard Nixon who ended the termination era. “If we go back to looking at people as people and not labels, overall that will always be the best solution,” Port said.

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