Campaign Photo
Former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas is running for the House of Representatives in Washington’s 5th district.

Six Seats Native Candidates Can Win to Flip Congress

Mark Trahant
2/18/16

TRAHANT REPORTS – Indian country is a key voting bloc in the Democrat’s campaign to win more House seats. Sort of.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is focusing on 19 seats that the party thinks it can win from Republicans, labeled as the “Red to Blue” campaign. Three of those seats have a significant number of Native American voters.

This is good news for Democrats who are competing in these districts because it should mean there will at least be seed money from a national network of donors. (Previous: Trahant Reports on the challenge of funding a congressional campaign.)

The most important seat on the Democrats’ list is Montana where Denise Juneau is challenging Rep. Ryan Zinke. Montana is an ideal state for a Democratic pickup. Montana’s demographics are changing and there will be a lot of ballot and fundraising chaos should the Republicans nominate Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. And, Native Americans already have a good turnout track record during presidential years.

Mark Trahant

Another House seat on this list is Nevada’s 4th district where former Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, Walker River Paiute, is a candidate. (He still must win a primary.) This district is almost 15 percent Native American.

DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, a New Mexico Democrat, told Politico that “House Democrats are on an offensive and will pick up these seats in 2016, and these effective, hardworking and diverse candidates are the foundation of our success this year.”

In a normal election cycle, a focus on two seats with Native candidates would be a good thing as part of a diversity foundation.

But this year I think Democrats could do more. A lot more. There are congressional districts that could get a huge boost from a strong Native American candidate. One of the best things that the Liberal Party did in its sweep of Canada’s election was recruit strong Aboriginal candidates. (If you want to see how powerful that was in one picture, check Adam Scotti’s official picture of Justin Trudeau asking Jody Wilson-Raybould to be the nation’s Attorney General.)

Where this DCCC list most conflicts with the principle of diversity is Arizona 1st congressional district. (Even though it’s already represented by a Democrat, the seat is still a target because it’s expected to be so close). This district is the most Native in the country — more than 22 percent and growing — and it’s time for Native representation. One. Who. Can. Win. The Democrats should be recruiting star candidates from tribal government, academia, or business. In an election cycle where outsiders are being rewarded by voters, this is a “ya’ think?” moment.

Instead Democrats have chosen Tom O’Halleran, a former Republican legislator, turned Democrat. Wonderful. That should excite folks across Indian country.

Two other districts with Native candidates are not on the list. Probably because they are considered long shots at this point. True. But this will not be a normal election year.

Those districts are Washington’s 5th district where former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas is running again; and Arizona’s 2nd district where Victoria Steele, a Seneca, is polling well but lacks money. Both Steele and Pakootas face primary challengers.

I would add one more seat to any target list: Alaska. Rep. Don Young is vulnerable even if that doesn’t show up in polling. And, like Arizona 1st, it’s time for an Alaska Native to represent Alaska. Democrats should be relentless in their recruiting (and that actually should be easy) and make certain that any candidate has enough money to be competitive. There are so many talented Alaska Natives who could win. (Note to Democrats: Do I need to put a list together for you? Or will you do your homework yourself?) It’s time.

The DCCC says this is only the first list. There will be more down the road. The sooner the better.

In case you are counting: There is a total of six seats where American Indian and Alaska Native voters could make a difference. When the goal is to win 30 seats, that’s not bad.

There has never been an election with more opportunity for Indian country. Why? Because we are the ultimate outsiders. And in 2016 that’s the winning hand.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes On Twitter .

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