Arizona is where American Indians could make a difference. At least on paper.
Native American voters – potentially some five percent of the state – were the deciding factor in Janet Napolitano’s election as governor. (She is now the Secretary of Homeland Security.)
On election night in November 2002, the state’s largest newspaper, The Arizona Republic, predicted that it would be days before the result would be known. However, the paper said, “an unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort on Native American reservations and in Hispanic communities also was helping Napolitano in one of the closest, nastiest and hardest-fought elections in Arizona’s history.” She won that race by a fraction over Republican candidate Matt Salmon.
Because in that 2002 election, American Indian voters took part. That year a record number of voters turned out on the Navajo Nation, some 40,000. And across the state people from 23 reservation communities also showed up at the polls.
That kind of success would, it seem, set the stage for future winning campaigns and change the nature of politics in Arizona.
But not yet.
Two years ago, Christopher Deschene, a Navajo ran for Secretary of State. He would have been the first American Indian to win statewide office in Arizona. Arizona was one of the last states to block American Indians from the polls until a 1948 lawsuit opened the door. There was also a contest for Navajo Nation President on the same Election Day. This should have been ideal conditions for a huge Native turnout.
It didn’t happen. Apache County, which is majority Navajo, only reported a 48 percent turnout, some 21,000 votes. Navajo County, which is Navajo and Hopi, wasn’t much better at 52 percent. Deschene lost by a healthy margin, 61 percent to 39 percent.
This year’s primary was another example of the vanishing Native vote. Wenona Bennally Baldenegro, a Harvard-educated Navajo from Kayenta, ran in the state’s first congressional district. One in five voters are Native – the most of any congressional district in the country – certainly enough votes to win a primary election. On top of that, there was no incumbent so the race was open. Ideal conditions for a pick up.
Baldenegro lost by large margin. The good news is that the Native vote was stronger than the statewide turnout. The bad news is that it was still only a little more than 30 percent.
Why did American Indian voters show up in 2002 and not 2010 or the 2012 primary? One reason might have been competing gambling initiatives on the ballot that could have been a threat to tribal gaming. A tribally-supported initiative passed while two competing measures were defeated.
Arizona could be a swing state if there was ever a real American Indian and Hispanic coalition. These two voter groups make up more than a third of the state’s population. And a test of that type of coalition will again be on the ballot next month. The candidate who’s hoping to pick up that support is Richard Carmona, a former U.S. Surgeon General in the Bush Administration. It’s been 18 years since a Democrat represented Arizona in the Senate. As a former Surgeon General Carmona has deep knowledge about the Indian Health system and would be an ally for funding and other reforms. He has visited many Indian Health Service and tribal facilities and has testified about government efforts to reduce youth suicide in Native communities. “I think we are engaged in a battle for hope,” he said in 2007. “…if we can act together, across tribal governments, states, and communities, I believe there is hope that the tide can be turned and hope restored. I commit to work with you and anyone else in and out of government to bring services and resources to this important effort.”
The outcome of the Arizona Senate race is one that could decide control of the U.S. Senate for the Republicans or Democrats.
Public Policy Polling, which leans Democratic, shows Carmona with a small lead. But that was before the race and Arizona is likely to give its electoral votes to Republican Mitt Romney. Easily. That makes the race difficult for secondary races, such as the U.S. Senate, because more Republican-leaning voters are likely to turnout.
Then again Natives rarely show up in polls, even in statewide surveys. And a strong turnout from the state’s Native communities, both urban and reservation, could shift that outcome. But it’s an open question whether that Native vote will show up.
Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.