Kevin Stitt, Oklahoma's governor-elect, goes to the polls with his oldest daughter, who voted for the first time on November 6, 2018. Photo: Kevin Stitt

Only one state makes history with election of first Native governor

Oklahoma is home to 39 federally recognized tribes and the second-largest population of Native Americans.

And after a historic Election Day, the state will finally be getting its first Native governor.

Kevin Stitt, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, secured victory on Tuesday. The Republican candidate defeated Democrat Drew Edmondson, a former attorney general of the state, with 54 percent of the vote, according to the unofficial results.

"Since the day I launched my campaign back in July of 2017, I’ve promised voters that with their support, and their vote, we’d get Oklahoma’s turnaround started right here, right now," Stitt said in a victory message on Wednesday. "The people have spoken, and it’s time to get to work on that turnaround!"

Stitt isn't just making history in Oklahoma, he will also be the first Native American governor in the United States. He claimed that title after Democrat Paulette Jordan, a citizen of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, failed in her groundbreaking campaign in Idaho.

But Jordan did not sound defeated as she delivered a concession speech in Boise on Tuesday night. She thanked her family, her staff and her volunteers for supporting a campaign that drew national attention.

"This is our time, this is our journey," she said to applause.

"We started at the bottom and now we're here," Jordan added. She secured 38 percent of the vote, according to the Idaho Secretary of State.

Election night 2018 Grove Hotel Boise, Idaho

Posted by Jordan for Governor on Tuesday, November 6, 2018
Paulette Jordan: Election Night Speech

Unlike Jordan, Stitt did not make much of an issue of his tribal heritage. But while his campaign biography doesn't mention his Cherokee citizenship, he has made no secret of his roots.

"As a registered Cherokee, I know first-hand what a tremendous benefit the tribes have been to our state, creating tens of thousands of jobs, expanding health care options in rural Oklahoma, and more," Stitt said in response to a MuskogeePolitico survey over the summer.

As the new governor, Stitt will be playing a major role in guiding the economic future of Indian Country. He will be negotiating a new Class III gaming compact -- the current agreements start to expire on January 1, 2020.

And, for better or worse, Stitt will also be at the helm when the U.S. Supreme Court decides Carpenter v. Murphy, a case involving the reservation boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The outcome is being watched closely by tribes as they wonder how the state will treat their sovereignty once a ruling is handed down.

Despite Stitt's landmark win, Oklahoma hasn't gone without Native representation at the state level. Steve Burrage, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, served as State Auditor and Inspector between 2008 and 2011.

Native Americans also have served in the Oklahoma Legislature and in various gubernatorial administrations. And voters on Tuesday just re-elected two tribal citizens to the U.S. Congress -- Rep. Tom Cole (R), who is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, and Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R), who hails from the Cherokee Nation.

Still, in a place where President Donald Trump remains popular, voters statewide remain standoffish when it comes to Native candidates from the Democratic party. Anastasia Pittman, a state lawmaker and citizen of the Seminole Nation, was defeated on Tuesday in her bid to become the first Native lieutenant governor.

Ashley Nicole McCray, a citizen of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe with heritage from the Oglala Sioux Tribe, also fell short in her bid to oversee the state's oil and gas drilling, utilities and telephone industries as part of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. Both she and Pittman only captured about 34 percent of the vote in their respective races.

Stitt, on the other hand, benefited from Trump's endorsement. Almost all of the state's elected leadership is Republican as well.

Overall, Native Americans represent 9.2 percent of Oklahoma's population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The state ranks second, behind California, in terms of the largest Native populations.

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