Elections 2012: Tribes Becoming Increasingly Sophisticated

Holly Cook Macarro

Just one year ago, the Democrats were written off as likely to lose their majority and control of the Senate to the Republicans. Today, they are looking at a gain of two seats and a 10-seat majority as a result of a near sweep of the top Senate races. While I’ve indulged in a little celebrating over these victories, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that everything is cyclical (remember 2000? 2010?) and we all get to be winners and losers some days.

Election 2012 is the strongest indication yet of the political sophistication that tribes have achieved. This election demonstrated an effective combination of political participation at the policy level, Native voter turnout, and strategic giving to races across the country.

Once again, each presidential campaign had a Native American outreach component to it and tribal planks in each party’s platform. This is the minimum that is expected out of a candidate nowadays, but I remember when it was a big deal to even get the candidate to utter the words “Native American” in a speech. As a veteran of several presidential campaigns, I know how difficult it is to get the top officials in a presidential campaign to engage on tribal issues. President Obama’s national political director, Katherine Archuleta, ensured that tribal leaders and Native politicos were part of the Obama 2012 campaign’s plan and Indian country has benefited throughout his tenure from the tribal experience several of his top advisers have—Jim Messina, his campaign manager, has extensive roots in Montana, and Pete Rouse was with former senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota before joining the president’s team. That deep familiarity with tribal issues at the highest levels is invaluable—it cannot be taught in a briefing.

One area Indian country did suffer in the presidential campaigns was a result of the changing makeup of the battleground states. The top battleground states (New Hampshire, Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, Wisconsin) were not the same states as the last three elections and did not include several key Native vote states. For example, New Mexico, with its sizable Pueblo, Navajo and urban tribal populations was not on the list. The battleground states are where campaign resources for building infrastructure and getting out the vote are spent—those expenditures can have lasting benefits to reservation communities in terms of permanent political infrastructure and providing community organizing experience. In 2008, the Howard Dean/Democratic National Committee’s 50-state strategy begun in 2004 was still playing out and resources were expended on a broader national scale. The DNC and the Obama campaign had paid Native organizers on the ground in several states.

Those resources in battleground states where Indians are a significant percentage of the vote impact all of Indian country because those states have a history of producing tribal advocates in the Senate and House not just for the tribes in their states, but for all tribes. Fortunately, nonpresidential battleground states like Montana, North Dakota and Arizona were home to hot Senate races and resources from the Senate campaign committees were directed to help get out the Native vote.

In addition to the partisan efforts that were in place this cycle, the nonpartisan efforts played a larger role than ever before. The National Congress of American Indians' well-organized messaging and resource tool kits for tribes to utilize were high-profile in Indian country. There were also tribal efforts within national voter-organizing and training groups like Wellstone Action and Rock the Vote.

All of these efforts combined to give Indian country a few sweet victories on November 6. Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) and Senator-elect Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) were two long-shot Democratic victories achieved with tremendous help from the tribes in their respective states. I guarantee they won’t forget it.

The effectiveness of tribal efforts was also a result of thoughtful political giving. Both Presidential campaigns hosted tribal political fundraisers this cycle—again, almost the norm now but practically unheard of 10 years ago. We won’t know the extent of tribal political giving until final reports from all the committees are released, but I’m sure it will make the headlines of some papers as if we were the cycle’s major donors. The fact is, tribal contributions are one small drop in the bucket of the $6 billion that was spent on election 2012. Probably the biggest message that came from the voters in 2012 was that this was still an election, not an auction. Strategic political spending and the right message won out over massive spending and the wrong message.

Looking forward to 2014, there will be another battle for control of the closely divided House of Representatives. The Senate provides several opportunities for tribes to once again play an influential role: senators Max Baucus (D-Montana), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Al Franken (D-Minnesota), Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota), and Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) are all up for re-election in a cycle that has 20 Democratic Senators and 13 Republican Senators facing re-election. Each of these senators will be looking to tribes for support. Let’s prepare for the opportunity to play a decisive role in these races once again. 0

Holly Cook Macarro is a partner at Ietan Consulting, From 1999 to 2001, she served as director of the Office of Native American Affairs at the Democratic National Committee. She also served in the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs in 1997 and 1998, where she worked primarily on Native American issues.

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