Opinion | Politics

Mark Trahant: The Native vote could decide the 2014 election

Four candidates are running for the U.S. Senate from South Dakota: Gordon Howe, a conservative independent; former Sen. Larry Pressler, now an independent; Republican Mike Rounds and Democrat Rick Weiland. Photo from C-SPAN

If there ever was an election that was ideal for American Indians and Alaska Natives to determine the outcome, it’s 2014.

Flip through the state campaigns and six or seven Senate races are within the margin of error (depending on which polls you believe). Another ten governor’s races are within two points either way. And, even in the House of Representatives —the political version of a stacked deck — there might be surprises in store.

This election is not about the will of the country; it’s about who will cast a ballot before Tuesday. That means Indian Country’s voice could be amplified.

Could be. Two words that define the difference between tipping the scales in this election or watching the outcome in January and asking, what happened?

Could be has been done before. Many times.

In 1958 for example there was a three-way race for the U.S. Senate in Utah. Arthur Watkins, the champion of termination, the George Armstrong Custer of his day, should have been a shoe-in for re-election. But he barely survived a bitter primary against another conservative, J. Bracken Lee. Lee refused to give up and ran in the general election as an independent. That provided the Democrat in the race, Frank Moss, with an opportunity to win with only 38 percent of the vote. Well short of a “majority.” The American Indian vote in Utah then was small, but you have to think it contributed to the upset of Watkins. This was the termination policy itself on the ballot.

That 1958 Utah race is worth thinking about in 2014 because third and fourth party candidates are stirring up trouble again.

In the South Dakota Senate race, for example, most of the polls only reflect numbers for three candidates, Republican Mike Rounds, Democrat Rick Weiland, and independent Larry Pressler. But a fourth candidate, Gordon Howe, is another conservative who has turned in some strong debate performances. When the votes are counted, every ballot that’s cast for Howe subtracts from Rounds. A candidate could win in South Dakota with even less than forty percent. (And, as I have written before, this race could put to rest the Keystone Xl pipeline.)

There’s a similar possibility in Alaska. Third and fourth party candidates received about 2 percent of the vote in the last election for governor, a race that was not close. But two points (or more) could be a significant factor in a tight race. Remember in September Democrat Byron Mallott ended his candidacy for governor and joined independent Bill Walker as a running mate.

This shook up everything — except for the third and fourth party candidates. Candidates for the Libertarian and Constitution Party remain on the ballot. There is a similar dynamic in the Senate race. Nathaniel Herz reported in The Alaska Dispatch News recently: “I think Begich is playing a game where if he can shake half a percent off of Sullivan and onto (Libertarian Mark) Fish, it’s half a percent that Sullivan hasn’t got,” said Ivan Moore, a local left-leaning pollster who isn’t actively involved in the Senate race. “And that may well make the difference.”

Another state where a third party candidate could change the outcome is North Carolina. Sean Haugh is a Libertarian (who delivers pizzas) and has polled as high as 7 percent. Polls show the incumbent, Sen. Kay Hagan with a lead of less than 2 percent over Republican challenger Thom Tillis.

Kansas, like Alaska, had an earthquake when the Democratic nominee for Senate withdrew in favor of independent Greg Orman. The polls show a race that could go either way but are focused on the two main candidates. There is a Libertarian in the race, Randall Batson, who could win enough votes to shift the outcome.

One region that does not allow this kind of voting is the South. In Georgia and Louisiana there are multiple candidates on the Senate ballot, but any winner must get at least 50 percent, plus one. That means next week’s election might not be the final round. Those two seats alone could mean control of the Senate remains in doubt until January.

Then there is the House. Unfortunately one outcome of the election chaos on the Navajo Nation is that it could depress turnout in the Arizona first congressional district. Even a small decline could be the difference in a close race leaving incumbent Ann Kirpatrick short in her re-election bid. One poll shows her trailing by 1.5 percent.

If these numbers seem small, they are. The 2014 election is all about who shows up. Could be us.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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