Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) on the campaign trail in Indian Country. Photo: Jon Tester

Native vote once again propels Jon Tester to victory in close Senate race

By Acee Agoyo

The power of the Native vote is once again on display as Democrat Jon Tester of Montana survived a near-fatal blow in the heart of Trump country.

After voters went to the polls on Tuesday, the outlook was initially positive for Tester, a former chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. But after more tallies came in overnight, his Republican opponent, Matt Rosendale, had emerged with a narrow lead on Wednesday morning.

By that time, it was already clear that the Republicans had retained control of the U.S. Senate. A loss by Tester would have tipped the scales even further, proving that President Donald Trump's repeated trips to Montana on behalf of Rosendale paid off.

But the tallies from Indian Country proved otherwise. The results from the race show that voters on reservations paid a key role in sending Tester, despite his vulnerability in the age of Trump, back to Capitol Hill for a third, six-year term.

"Montana, we won this doggone thing. And we won because of you," Tester wrote in a post on Twitter on early Wednesday afternoon after his victory was assured.

Some Native voters hailed the outcome as a sign of their ongoing resistance to Trump and his agenda. Citizens of the Crow Tribe were among the most invested in the campaign, having rebuked their own leader's endorsement of Rosendale and the party of Trump in a very public fashion last week.

"Indian Country spoke loud and clear!" Donavon Hawk, a Crow citizen and regional director for Montana's Big Sky Democrats, wrote on Twitter.

Crow country indeed remained a bastion of support for Tester on Election Day. According to the tallies from the Montana Secretary of State, the Democratic incumbent won Big Horn County, home to the reservation, with 65 percent of the vote. That matched the percentage of the county's Native population of 66 percent.

The outcomes in other reservations showed similar patterns. In Glacier County, where the Blackfeet Nation is based, Tester secured a whopping 75 percent of the vote. Native Americans represent about 64 percent of the population there.

In Roosevelt County, home to the Fort Peck Tribes, 58 percent of voters went with Tester. The county is nearly 60 percent Native.

And in Blaine County, where the Fort Belknap Indian Community is based, Tester won 64 percent of the vote. About half of the population there is Native.

The strong returns were more than enough for Tester to keep Rosendale at bay as more returns came in on Wednesday. By the time the Republican hopeful conceded the race, he was down by more than 9,700 votes.

"My work for the people of Montana is not done and I will continue to serve and always put the people of Montana first," said Rosendale, a self-described "Trump conservative" who serves as the state's auditor.

Indianz.Com on YouTube: Crow Chairman and Matt Rosendale

During the race, Rosendale hadn't talked much about tribal issues despite being in a state where Native Americans represent 6.7 percent of the population. His staff, on the other hand, repeatedly boasted of Trump's appearances in Montana -- four overall, including a final one on Sunday.

But in the last full week of the campaign, Rosendale went public with an endorsement from Chairman Alvin "A.J." Not Afraid of the Crow Tribe, sending out a video, photo and press release to the media on October 28. Though the event took place in Lewistown, hundreds of miles from the reservation, word quickly got back to Big Horn County, where voters were livid.

"Montana's tribes are a critical part of the state and I pledge to work together to help build a better future with more jobs, economic opportunities, and better health care for the tribal nations, and I will be there to hold the federal government accountable when they’re not doing their job and delivering on their promises.” Rosendale said that day.

Prior to the announcement, his campaign had not brought up tribes in a substantive way in any of its press materials, dating back to the July 2017, when he launched his race.

A visit to the Crow Reservation two days after the endorsement proved to be a tipping point. In a post on Twitter, he implied that he had the entire tribe's support.

That wasn't the case, Crow critics and Crow lawmakers were quick to point out.

"The Crow Tribe has not endorsed any candidate for office," a press release from the legislative branch announced on October 31, a day after Rosendale's visit.

"Chairman Not Afraid cannot endorse nor appear to endorse any candidate without Crow Tribal Government approval," it continued.

Citizens of the Crow Tribe who gathered on November 1, 2018, to protest their chairman's endorsement of Republican politicians drew supporters of Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana). Photos courtesy Donavon Hawk

A protest outside tribal headquarters took place the following day. Though organizers aimed their event at Not Afraid, it quickly turned into a pro-Tester rally, helping drive up interest in the final days of the Democratic incumbent's campaign.

"It's time to wake up people! The Crow Tribe is not for sale!" Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, a Democratic state lawmaker and Tester supporter, said at the protest last Thursday.

As a long-serving member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Tester has repeatedly supported the Crow Tribe's agenda in Congress, notably helping secure passage of a $460 million water rights settlement in 2010. And since winning his first election in 2006, he has championed the issues of other tribes in Montana.

In advancing those causes, Tester has frequently worked with fellow Republicans -- including Sen. Steve Daines (R) and former Rep. Ryan Zinke, who is now serving as Secretary of the Interior in President Trump's administration. He's also the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.

As he returns to the Senate for the 116th session of Congress, Tester will have to continue reaching across the aisle. Republicans have secured at least 51 seats in the chamber.

Republican candidate Matt Rosendale called the endorsement of the leader of the Crow Tribe an "honor of a lifetime" as he was presented with a buffalo robe by Chairman Alvin "A.J." Not Afraid at a campaign event in Lewistown, Montana, on October 28, 2018. "You can keep your buffalo robe as a souvenir," a tribal citizen retorted after Rosendale conceded the U.S. Senate race to Democrat Jon Tester. Photo: Matt Rosendale

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Native women headed to Congress for first time after historic election (November 7, 2018)
Election Day: #NativeVote18 races to watch across the nation (November 6, 2018)
Crow citizens upset after chairman aligns tribe with Republicans (November 1, 2018)
A coal fight in Indian country turns ugly (October 10, 2018)
Supreme Court gains new member as Trump's shadow looms large in Indian cases (October 9, 2018)
Leader of Crow Tribe blames 'gross mismanagement' on others (October 8, 2018)
Crow Tribe is subject of another critical look at federal funds (October 3, 2018)
Chairman of Crow Tribe avoids arrest in dispute with judicial branch (September 10, 2018)
Chairman of Crow Tribe ordered arrested in dispute with judicial branch (September 7, 2018)
Tribal corruption remains a target of the conservative media (August 1, 2018)
Crow Tribe can't account for nearly $14.5 million in federal funds (June 26, 2018)
Trending in News
More Headlines