Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) listens to Tara Sweeney, the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, at a meeting of the Congressional Western Caucus in Washington, D.C., on September 13, 2018. Young is running for re-election in Alaska's at-large Congressional District, where about 20 percent of the population is Native. Photo: Congressman Don Young

Twenty congressional districts where #NativeVote18 could make all the difference

There are at least 20 congressional districts where the Native Vote tops one percent of potential voters
By Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

Consider Arizona’s 1st Congressional District: It’s the most Native-centric district in the country, nearly a quarter of the voters are also tribal citizens.

The district was once considered a toss-up. It has been represented by both Republicans and Democrats in recent years. But now the district is rated by the Cook Political Report (as well as other observers) as “likely Democratic.”

Across the country this is the kind of district where the demographics suggest a future primary challenge. It’s the kind of district where an older, white Democrat will eventually being replaced by younger, and in this case, Native politician. (Indeed: Two Native women have already run in the Democratic primary, Wenona Benally, Navajo, and Mary Kim Titla, San Carlos Apache. And on the Republican side, Carlyle Begay, Navajo, was a challenger in this district two years ago.)

When, not if.

Rep. Tom O'Halleran (D-Arizona) greets a spectator at the Navajo Nation Fair in Window Rock, Arizona, on September 8, 2018. O'Halleran is running for re-election in Arizona's 1st Congressional District, where nearly 23 percent of the population is Native. Photo: Tom O'Halleran

Yet on Election Day the Arizona 1st Congressional is still a district where the Native vote is critical to the outcome. The reason the Arizona 1st is considered “likely Democratic” is that Native American voters have spoken before in big numbers. In Apache County, for example, where most of the voters are Navajo, Rep. Tom O’Halleran, a Democrat, earned nearly two-thirds of the vote two years ago. The next county over, which includes Flagstaff, was much closer (even though O’Halleran won that, too). The Native vote is decisive because it’s a bloc vote. And in practical terms, this means that Republicans won’t spend the money required to make this race competitive. It’s not worth the investment.

The thing is there are 435 elections for Congress coming in about a month. And only about one hundred of those races are competitive (and even that’s a number that is much larger than in recent years). The Republicans now control the House with a margin of 236 seats to 192 for the Democrats (with six vacancies). One factor in this election cycle is the number of retirements by incumbent members of Congress, including the Speaker of the House, Rep. Paul Ryan in Wisconsin.

Potential Native voters in various Congressional districts -- not including districts where a candidate is a Native American. Sources: NativeVote.Org, recent public polling. Graphic by Mark Trahant / Indian Country Today

More from Mark Trahant on Indian Country Today: Six ways Native voters could tip control of the Senate

Alaska, like Arizona’s 1st, is a case of “when, not if.” Statewide Alaska Natives are just under 20 percent of the population. But that number is growing -- especially because other residents are leaving the state. Three trends to think about. First: The Alaska Native population is growing and younger than the general population. Second: A record number of people are leaving Alaska for other states. “For the past five years, Alaska’s net migration has been negative,” according to the state’s Alaska Economic Trends. “This represents the longest streak of Alaska losing more migrants than it gains since World War II, when yearly numbers first became available.” The state reports that since 2012 nearly 29,000 people have moved away and Alaska’s overall population shrank by a fraction, .04 of a percent.

Alyse Galvin, a Democrat, is challenging Don Young, the longest serving member of Congress. Photo: Alyse Galvin for Congress

Finally this is more of a question than a trend, but the third issue that makes Alaska different is the idea of independent politicians. Alyse Galvin won the Democratic primary as an independent, defeating candidates who were running as Democrats. (There is also a three-way race for governor, that includes an independent.) She’s running against Rep. Don Young, the longest serving member of Congress.

Before the primary, the website FiveThirtyEight said: “Republican Don Young, the longest-serving member of the U.S. House, isn’t in much danger of losing re-election according to traditional analysts, but our House model suggests the door is open a crack for an upset. To force a competitive race, Democrats would be best off nominating Alyse Galvin ... as an undeclared candidate nominated by the Democratic Party, and that designation will likely help her to win over unaffiliated voters.”

That’s exactly what happened. So watch the unaffiliated vote plus the Native vote in next month’s election.

And you can bet both candidates will be seeking support this month at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Alaska.

It's also interesting to see how many of the candidates in the competitive House races are women. This is a record year. Across the country more than 40 percent of all Democratic Party nominees — and 48 percent of all non-incumbent nominees — are women.

Montana is another state that’s in play and once again the Native vote could be decisive. Native voters are seven percent of the state’s voting-age population. And this race really depends on who shows up because Republican incumbent Greg Gianforte is doing well among his own party, but trails when measured against independent voters and Democrats. A recent poll showed that gap to be especially significant in the Senate race where some 55 percent of independents say they will vote for Jon Tester, the incumbent and a Democrat. But in the House race, it’s much closer. Only 50 percent of the independents say they will support the challenger, Kathleen Williams.

Tester, however, should be a draw in Indian Country. He campaigns on the state’s seven reservations and has built a lot of support over the years. And that support could help the Democrat running for the House.

Mark Trahant is the editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter @TrahantReports.

Note: The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.

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