Polls vary in the race for New Mexico Senate between Republican Heather Wilson and Democrat Martin Heinrich.

Heinrich, Wilson Clamor for Native Votes in New Mexico Senate Race

Babette Herrmann
10/23/12

In the senate race between New Mexico Democrat Martin Heinrich and Republican Heather Wilson, Heinrich has pulled ahead in the polls, but even as the finish line approaches both candidates realize the fight for Washington is far from over as they continue to campaign hard in cities, small towns and in Indian country.

Poll results for the New Mexico Senate race vary, but RealClearPolitics.com took the polling results from Albuquerque Journal, Rasmussen Reports, We Ask America and Public Policy Polling and averaged those findings to give Heinrich a lead of 10.5 points, effective October 11.

But for the sake of analysis though, can Native voters play a strong role in this election, ultimately leading to what political party controls the U.S. Senate after November 6?

David Sarasohn of The Nation magazine seems to think so. He stated in an article that Native American voters “could win the Senate for the Democrats.” While Heinrich has taken a lead in the polls in New Mexico, Arizona, Montana and North Dakota all have highly competitive Senate races with Democrats having a strong showing in the polls in states that typically lean conservative.

And all four states have small, but sizable Native American populations. New Mexico leans liberal, and has the highest Native American population of the four states, comprising of 10.1 percent of the state’s population.

However, McKinley County, New Mexico Bureau of Elections Director Rick Palochak seemed skeptical of whether the Native vote alone could influence the outcome of what political party takes the Senate in the four state show-down. He said when the public registers to vote there is no checkbox for race, and 10.1 percent is not indicative of the state’s Native American voting population.

“There is no way to know for sure,” he said.

He also said McKinley County’s population hovers around 70,000, and Native Americans account for 74 percent of the population. A large chunk of the Navajo Nation and the Pueblo of Zuni falls within the county’s boundaries. McKinley County leans Democratic, accounting for about 64 percent of registered voters. In essence, Democrats do well here, but it’s only one of 33 counties in the state.

Despite polls and media claims, both candidates seem eager to gain the support of New Mexico’s Native American communities. They have made stops at numerous pueblos and tribes in hopes of gaining supporters.

Heinrich, who has received numerous endorsements from tribal leaders, said he earned Native American voters trust while serving as a U.S. Congressman.

“Those are communities that you just don’t pick up and immediately walk into and say hey I am going to be good on your issues,” he said. “You have to prove yourself.”

One such issue he pushed for while in Congress was for the passage of the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act that President Barack Obama signed into law in June. He said the bill opens the door to financing opportunities for families living on reservations that want to secure the American dream of homeownership.

Heinrich said his last stop in Indian country was in early October to the Northern Navajo Nation Fair in Shiprock, New Mexico. He also visited Taos Pueblo, the Mescalero Apache Tribe and Jicarilla Apache Nation in recent months.

If he gets elected as senator, he said that he plans on educating fellow legislators on issues important to tribes.

“There’s just far too many elected officials on both sides of the aisles that don’t understand the unique challenges that Native communities face,” he said.

Heinrich said legislators need to know what sets tribes apart, such as sovereignty, land rights issues and the challenge of homeownership for people living on reservations.

Similar to Heinrich, Wilson said she has visited numerous tribal communities, with her last visit to the Navajo Nation capitol in Window Rock, Arizona.

“The major issues there seems to be jobs,” she said.

Wilson said she supports coal mines on the Navajo Nation as they account for a large share of the tribe’s revenue, and serve as a source of employment for tribal members. She said that she supports a wide range of energy sources, including renewable energy, but emphasized the importance of supporting what’s already in place.

She has made campaign stops at Pueblo of Zuni, Jicarilla Apache Nation, Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, Santa Clara Pueblo, and has visited the All Indian Pueblo Council. Like Hienrich, Wilson has Washington experience, and was a former U.S. Congresswoman for New Mexico.

Regardless of who wins the Senate seat, she feels it’s going to be a close race.

“I think this election in New Mexico will probably be decided by 1,000 to 2,000 votes either way,” she said.

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