Mark Trahant: Indian vote could bring a surprise in South Dakota

CAMPAIGN STOP -- South Dakota Senate candidate Rick Weiland poses in front of Lower Brule Sioux Tribe’s administration building. His website shows Weiland marking his visits to small towns and reservation communities across the state.

It’s now forty days until Election Day, but if you add up all the polls then this campaign die is already cast. The Republicans won, picking up seats in the House and enough to capture the Senate.

The compilation from Real Clear Politics tells the story in its map, showing Republicans ahead in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. Subtract Kansas and that leaves seven, one more than what’s needed for Mitch McConnell to move into the majority leader’s office.

There is only one problem with that scenario. We haven’t voted yet (except where early voting has started, such as South Dakota and Iowa).

As Nate Silver points out on FiveThirtyEight.Com: “Republicans are favored to take control of the Senate but the race is close; essentially the same conditions have held all year. As of Sunday morning, the GOP’s odds of winning the Senate are 60 percent in the forecast, only half a percentage point better than where they were after our previous update on Friday.”

What’s more if you think back to 2012 remember that two states that most forecasters got wrong were Montana and North Dakota. Why? Because the American Indian vote “outperformed” the models. That can happen again in Alaska, and, in my long shot special, South Dakota.

Let’s look closer at South Dakota. No pollster even ranks this as a competitive race. Former Gov. Mike Rounds is leading the polls by an average of 13 percent. He is facing several opponents, Democratic nominee, Rick Weiland, and former U.S. Senator Larry Pressler, a former Republican now turned Independent. The conservative alternative, Gordie Howie, will also be on the ballot.

So unless something changes Rounds will probably win with about 42 percent of the vote.

What could change that equation? Perhaps the Keystone XL pipeline.

Should the Republicans capture the Senate a vote to build the Keystone XL pipeline could come as soon as “January 2nd,” Rounds said over the weekend. This is not just Rounds talking. A recent Associated Press story said a bill to approve the pipeline will be the GOP Senate’s first act because “Obama might find it difficult to veto such bipartisan efforts.”

Both Pressler and Weiland oppose the pipeline, splitting the vote. Weiland has even called the pipeline “a big money con” that would bring little benefit to South Dakota. Weiland was an adviser to former Sen. Tom Daschle and is familiar to many on Indian issues. He’s been endorsed by all nine tribes in the state.

Earlier this month the Native Sun News held a debate on American Indian issues and Rounds was the only no show.

But at forty days out, there needs to be a game changer. Folks who see the Keystone XL pipeline as the most important issue facing South Dakota ought to settle on one candidate and use the last month to let voters know why. This will not be easy. Unlike Kansas and Alaska, there will be several candidates on the ballot no matter what.

But if a single message is sent loud and clear, well, it might be enough to win. South Dakota is usually one of the top states for turnout, probably in the range of 355,000 people. That means a candidate could win a multi-candidate race with 160,000 votes. (Even Obama could not do that, he only received 145,000 votes two years ago.)

Still, 160,000 is not an impossible number when there are so candidates are on the ballot. But it will take elevating the Keystone Pipeline issue and for the Cowboy and Indian alliance to coalesce around a single candidate. That is if the Keystone XL pipeline debate is important enough to chuck politics as usual.

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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