"Thank you, #KS03." Photo: Sharice Davids

Native women headed to Congress for first time after historic election

By Acee Agoyo

With additional reporting by Kevin Abourezk

Native women will finally be serving in Congress after a historic election that saw Democrats take control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

With eyes across Indian Country watching, the celebrations first began in Kansas, where Sharice Davids, a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation, won her closely-watched race in the 3rd Congressional District. She will be a part of the new Democratic majority come January.

But even though she easily defeated Kevin Yoder, the Republican incumbent who held the seat for nearly a decade, Davids was gracious in her victory speech on Tuesday night. The former White House fellow and tribal economic development expert vowed to be a voice for all residents of her district.

"It doesn't matter if you cast your vote for me or if you cast your vote for Kevin Yoder. Come January, I see every single person," Davids said. "I hear you and I see you, because the time for people to not be heard, and not be seen and not be listened to, or represented well, changes now."

"I am so excited about the fact that we have the opportunity to reset expectations about what they think when they look at Kansas," Davids added.

Deb Haaland, who hails from the Pueblo of Laguna, also made history on Election Day. She was all but assured of victory in New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, where voters have sent a Democrat to Capitol Hill every year since 2009 but it was her moment nonetheless.

"I never imagined a world where I would be represented by someone who looks like me," Haaland said in her victory speech, delivered after Davids' victory one time zone ahead was already secured. "Tonight, New Mexico, you are sending one of the very first Native American women to Congress."

"Congress has never heard a voice like mine, but when the 116th session of the United States House of Representatives convenes on January 3, 2019, it will," she added, repeating a phrase that made her campaign one of the most watched in the nation. "It will hear my voice. It will hear your voice. It will hear all of our voices."

Less certain was another Native voice from New Mexico, this one a Republican. With votes still coming in, Yvette Herrell, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, maintained a slight lead in her race in the 2nd Congressional District.

As of Wednesday morning, fewer than 2,000 votes separated Herrell from Xochitl Torres Small, the Democratic candidate, according to the New Mexico Secretary of State. Though some news outlets projected Herrell as the winner, Torres Small has not yet conceded in the close contest.

A win by Herrell would put her in the Republican minority in January. There she would be joined by two other Native members of the GOP -- both men -- who won their re-election bids on Tuesday.

Tom Cole, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, easily won his seat in Oklahoma's 4th Congressional District, where he has served since 2003. The bipartisan-minded lawmaker has long been seen by tribes and members of both parties as a strong advocate for Indian issues.

Markwayne Mullin, who hails from the Cherokee Nation, was also victorious in Oklahoma. He defeated Jason Nichols, a fellow tribal citizen, in the 2nd Congressional District, where he has served since 2013.

"I look forward to working for you in Washington," Mullins said after securing his fourth term in office.

When Mullins and Cole return in January, they will see a changed Congress. Democrats won at least 220 seats in the House, two more than needed to gain control of the chamber, which had been in Republican hands since 2011.

In securing control, Democrats like Davids and Haaland capitalized on the unpopular Republican occupant of the White House. The results of the election were seen as a referendum on President Donald Trump.

“Nothing is more powerful than the voice of the American people, and they spoke out loud and clear: Donald Trump does not stand for our values, the Republican Party has failed to hold him accountable, and it’s time for bold Democratic leadership in Washington." Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said early Wednesday morning.

But Perez said the election wasn't just about Trump. Though Davids has never held political office, he credited her for connecting with voters in her district, located in the eastern part of Kansas in an area that includes Kansas City.

“Sharice campaigned on the issues that matter most to working Kansans: good-paying jobs, affordable health care, and a quality education that opens the doors of opportunity," Perez said late Tuesday. "As the first openly LGBTQ person to represent Kansas in Congress, Sharice is breaking down barriers and making sure that our leaders represent the diversity of our people."

Likewise, Perez said Haaland, a former leader of New Mexico's Democratic Party, ran an effective campaign in a district that includes the state's largest city, as well as several tribes. The Native vote, both on and off the reservation, helped propel the Pueblo citizen to victory.

“Deb ran on a platform to protect New Mexico’s environment, champion better schools, expand access to health care, and build an economy that works for every family," Perez said. "She is a powerful new voice for the people of New Mexico, and her victory is a testament to what Democrats can achieve when we organize everywhere."

“In the face of relentless attempts by Republicans to suppress the vote and silence Native American voices, Native American voters turned out in record numbers," he added. "The DNC was proud to work with and invest in the New Mexico and Kansas Democratic Parties to organize in Native American communities and make sure Democrats like Deb and Sharice won races up and down the ballot tonight.”

The message was less successful in the U.S. Senate. Republican maintained their control of the chamber as Indian Country lost a prominent advocate and another was in danger of being ousted.

With all districts in North Dakota reporting on Wednesday morning, it became clear that Democrat Heidi Heitkamp failed in her bid to save her seat in the Senate. She lost to Republican Kevin Cramer by 11 percentage points in a state where Trump remains extremely popular.

"While tonight’s result wasn’t the outcome we desired, I still have so much hope for our future," Heitkamp said in a statement early Wednesday morning. "But I also know that for us to succeed, we can and must return to a politics that reflects the goodness of our country and the goodness of North Dakota."

In neighboring Montana, the results were looking down for another Democrat. Jon Tester, a former chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, was trailing Republican Matt Rosendale by about 3,000 votes as of Wednesday morning according to the Secretary of State.

Results continue to come in from precincts in Indian Country and in other areas of the state. The Native vote helped Tester secure victory in 2006 and again in 2012. He won his first race by about 2,600 votes.

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