Opinion | Politics

Mark Trahant: Native candidates fall behind in the big money wars

Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), center in front row, poses with representatives of the National Johnson-O'Malley Association on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. D.C., Mullin is a member of the Cherokee Nation and is one of only two Native Americans in Congress. Photo from Markwayne Mullin / Facebook

#NativeVote16 – The hidden history of why Native Americans lose elections (and what to do about it)
To change Congress: Rethink. The. Money.
By Mark Trahant

Native Americans make up .37 percent of Congress (that’s about one-third of one percent) compared to about 2 percent of the country’s population as a whole.

If that number seems too small, consider this one, only .23 percent of the population invests more than $200 on political campaigns. Any campaign. But that tiny fraction, about one-fifth of one percent, spends more than $1.18 billion every cycle. The New York Times boiled the total down to 158 families who are responsible for half of all presidential campaign spending. (Tribes and tribal enterprises do spend significant amounts on political campaigns, more on that shortly.)

Put these numbers together and it’s pretty clear why American Indians and Alaska Natives lose elections. There is never enough money, the basic fuel that makes winning elections possible.

Look at the campaigns of Victoria Steele in Arizona. She’s won a seat in the legislature in 2012, raising more than $44,000. When she ran for re-election two years later there was more money, $108,888. The reason: That tiny faction that sends checks to political candidates has a criteria that tops ideology, they want to invest in winners. Rule Number One is you win an election, and more money follows.

Steele, who is Seneca, is on the exact course that political experts recommend as the route to Congress. Run for the legislature, gain experience, and then take a shot. About half of the women in Congress followed this path.

Campaign spending reports for candidates in Arizona's 2nd Congressional district, 4th quarter of 2015. Source: OpenSecrets.Org

Here is the problem. That next step costs a lot more money and Steele has to beat candidates who are already well-funded. In the primary election contest Steele has been polling well: She trails incumbent Martha McSally by about nine points, according to The Arizona Star, and Steele leads her primary opponent Matt Heinz. But in the money race she’s a distant third. McSally has raised $3.8 million, Heinz $407,387 and Steele only $99,817.

Nearly all of Steele’s contributions are coming from individuals. In fact she only reports one Political Action Committee, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

In Montana, Denise Juneau started off her fundraising by breaking a record for a Democrat in that state. Juneau reported raising $263,803 from 1,029 individual donors, 85 percent of whom are from Montana. (She also recently won an important endorsement from EMILY’s list which should boost the next fundraising quarter.) Juneau also received some 17 percent of her funding from Political Action Committees.

The bad news is Juneau still trails Ryan Zinke, her Republican opponent, by a significant margin. Zinke’s annual report shows him raising $2,613,737. And he raised more money from PACs than Juneau has raised in total, $301,200 from a variety of corporate and political interest PACs, many advocating coal and other resource extraction. Zinke also spends a lot of money, more than $2 million for the year. But that still leaves him a lot of money, $743,983.

But within Steele and Juneau’s financial report there is a stunning gap: Where is the deep financial support from tribes, casinos, and other Native American enterprises?

The National Indian Gaming Association's Sovereignty PAC contributed to a number of campaign committees in 2015. Source: Federal Elections Commission

The only Native American PAC to contribute directly to Juneau is $1,500 from the National Indian Gaming Association Sovereignty PAC. Another contributor, the Turquoise PAC sounds cool (Native artists bundling cash?) but according to OpenSecrets.org, the PAC is mostly corporations such as Blue Cross/Blue Shield although it also includes the Pueblo of Pojoaque.

About a half-dozen tribes have donated to Juneau, and only one tribe, Puyallup, has given the maximum contribution. Most tribes donate directly, as individuals, rather than via a PAC. The federal limits are $2,700 per election or $5,400 if you include the primary. PACs can give $5,000 per cycle.

Over the last couple of years the National Indian Gaming Association’s Sovereignty PAC has been a contributor to campaigns, spending roughly $80,000 in the 2014 election and only about $23,000 so far this election cycle.

Overall tribal casino enterprises do donate considerably more to congressional candidates. According to OpenSecrets.Org the tribal gaming industry gave $5.4 million to Republican candidates and $7.2 million to Democratic ones. The top recipients of that money essentially reflect the current power structure in Washington.

The top 20 list of recipients of campaign contributions from the "tribal gaming industry," as reported by OpenSecrets.Org

Let me be clear here: Tribes and casinos are investing in these candidates because that’s the way the game is played. There are a lot of jobs in Indian Country at stake so it would be foolish for tribal interests to walk away entirely. It’s just not enough to say the system is rotten — it is — there also has to be a reasonable alternative. Especially if we all agree that Congress must include more Native voices.

Let’s look deeper at some of the numbers. The only two Native Americans in Congress — the 0.37 Percent Club — run serious fundraising operations.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, started the year with nearly a million in the bank. He’s not even likely to need that much money because in his state and district it’s unlikely he will face much competition. Cole is Chickasaw. Nearly half of his funding comes from PAC sources, 47.4 percent. Markwayne Mullin, R-Oklahoma, and member of the Cherokee Nation, reported contributions of $560,980 — and 61 percent of that came from PACs.

It works for Cole and Mullin because they reflect the status quo. And that status quo is too often supported by tribal contributions.

Last May, for example, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs had a heated exchange with then-Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn about the issue of land into trust. Young said “tribal advocates” were trying to undermine his work and pour gasoline on a political fire. “I’m going to suggest we play ball straight. This is not to start an issue or try to destroy the effects of this committee,” Young said. “I hope everybody understands that. Because I do not forgive very well …. Not once have I not served the American Indians and Alaska Natives.”

Washburn, however, called this an attack on tribal sovereignty. “You’ve made plain your concerns about tribal governments," Washburn said. "And you’ve not hidden your prejudices, and I respect that because although I disagree with you, I’m glad you’re not running from your convictions.”

And did this attack on sovereignty cost Young money? Not so much. He has more than a half million dollars in the bank and so far no serious competitor. He is number six on the list of those in Congress who receive the most donations from tribal gaming. What’s more, several tribes and Alaska Native corporations have continued to donate toward Young’s re-election. The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde in Oregon gave Young the maximum. And Young received a $2,500 contribution from the Fond Du Lac Band Federal Political Fund in December.

Compare that to the campaigns of a tribal leader. In Washington state, former Colville Chairman Joe Pakootas has raised $69,794 this quarter in his bid for Congress and two years ago he raised $202,163. Pakootas did receive many contributions directly from tribes in $500, $1,000, or even $2,500 increments. So it’s not that there was zero contributions from tribes, it’s that there was scant funding from Political Action Committees. Less than 7 percent of Pakootas funding came from that sort of contribution.

Pakootas did receive more $6,338 from Democratic Party committees (most of from the region). And that’s important because there is an attitude in American politics that candidates must survive a fundraising trial by fire. So Native American candidates not only must sell themselves to a general population, then they have to come up with a strategy that taps into that tiny fraction of Americans who fund election campaigns.

I remember visiting with a friend once who was a member of Congress. We were riding on public transportation. His phone rang. “I can’t talk to you on this line,” he said. “Call back.” So he put his congressional office phone away, answered another cell phone, and then spent the next few minutes asking for contributions. Imagine doing this dozens of time every day. Honing your pitch until you have it just right. Every word you say is designed to translate into asking for money.

Of course there are a lot of better ways to fund candidates. I’ve long supported public funding of candidates to make the competition more fair. Seattle is engaged in an interesting experiment now with “$100 election vouchers” so that citizens can invest in candidates without spending their own money.

One solution: Small donors rule
We can and must do better at supporting our own candidates. One way to do that is focusing on the “small” money campaign. That’s when folks send $10 or $20 to the candidates who would represent Indian Country. This is exactly what’s working for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders right now. He has raised $54 million from small donors, nearly three-quarters of his contributions according to OpenSecrets.Org.

A new study by U.S. PIRG Education Fund looked at the presidential race and said Congress should change the law to encourage and reward small donors with matches of six-to-one or more. “What this study shows is that under a small donor matching system, candidates would have a powerful incentive to change their fundraising strategy from what we see today to focus on everyday Americans,” the report said. “A small donor matching system … would make it rational to prioritize small contributions from regular Americans. Enacting a small donor matching program for all federal races would put everyday citizens back in the driver’s seat of our democracy.”

In addition to Seattle, New York City and Maine reward candidates with small donor campaigns. Encouraging small donors is a reform makes a lot of sense. (Again: Add to that idea that complete public financing of elections. Just imagine how many good candidates from Indian Country would surface if they didn’t have to worry about raising money.)

I’d like to see a Native American small donor matching fund. It could work like this: An individual tribal member or Alaska Native shareholder could send a small donation to a congressional campaign and then a fund of would send in a multiple match. So $20 becomes $100 for every donor. Perhaps such a fund could set up tribe by tribe. Or through an intertribal political fund.

This would be a smart investment for tribes and casino enterprises too. It would connect tribal governments, enterprises, and Alaska Native corporations with their constituents in a shared outcome by matching their member contributions.

The US PRIG report cited a survey of “four Republican and Democratic congressional candidates who were outspent by an average of five-to-one by their opponents during the 2014 midterm elections. If a small donor matching program were in place for those candidates, the four would have closed the fundraising gap by an average of 40 percent. While a small donor program might not always result in participating candidates outpacing their big money opponents, it would give candidates with broad grassroots support a much better chance to run competitive campaigns.”

It’s time that Native American candidates had access to every tool that would make them competitive — and then go on to win.

So if billionaires can create PACs and SuperPacs, then tribes, Alaska Native corporations, and voter organizations, should be able to create Political Action Committees that match small donors (at least up to the current limits). I don’t know exactly what that framework would look like (note to lawyers: figure this out) but it could significantly boost the electability of Native American candidates.

In the meantime, if you want more Natives in office, remember it’s all about money. It will take big bucks to open up the 0.37 Percent Club to new members.

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 @TrahantReports

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