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Obama's Play for Indian Country

Barack Obama has vowed to expand the electoral map for the Dems. Turning out the politically neglected Native American vote may be the key to doing so.

| Mon Oct. 27, 2008 3:00 AM EDT

For observers of Native American politics, one race in particular exemplifies this bloc's ability to determine an election. Late on election night in 2002, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) was losing, with only a few counties left to report. It was already a banner election year for Republicans, who would finish the night having regained control of the Senate and expanded their majority in the House. Among the last votes to come in that night were from the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian Reservation, which includes Shannon County, the least white, most Native American, and second-poorest county in America. State Democrats' ambitious get-out-the-vote campaign had increased turnout among the state's Native Americans by more than 70 percent.

When all the votes were counted, more than 90 percent of Shannon County went for Johnson, who won by 524 votes over John Thune. (Republicans would later claim, falsely, that "phony Indian votes" stole the election for Johnson.)

"We swung that election," says Garriott. "And it was a huge win that reverberated around the nation. Since that time, there's been a lot more attention paid to the Indian vote."

Indian country has also been credited with delivering Montana to Bill Clinton in 1992 and a Senate seat for Democrat Maria Cantwell in Washington in 2000. In 2006, Montana Democrat Jon Tester unseated incumbent Conrad Burns due in part to vastly increased Native American turnout.

As Garriott notes, Indians' effectiveness as a voting bloc has traditionally been limited because Native Americans register to vote at far lower rates than the general population. So if the Democrats need Indian country to win in the West, they're also going to need to raise registration rates.

In concert with its outreach program, the Obama campaign began soliciting endorsements from tribal leaders as early as January 2007. It has thus far received public support from more than 100 tribal leaders and more than 20 tribes. Despite representing a state with no federally recognized tribes, Obama has put together a far-reaching Indian policy platform, calling for a White House senior adviser on Indian issues and a yearly "Tribal G8," which would bring leaders of different Indian nations together in Washington to meet with the president and help fashion the federal government's Native American policy agenda.

Sam Deloria, a long-time advocate of Native American causes, says endorsements are all well and good, but he's glad campaigns are no longer just focusing on tribal leaders. "Getting the tribal leadership to endorse you doesn't mean that they're going to put together a get-out-the-vote machine for you at their own expense," says Deloria, a lifelong independent. Both parties are starting to realize, he says, "If you want the votes, you're going to have to go out and get them."

So what about John McCain? If any Republican could have a shot at the Native American vote, it's the Arizona senator. McCain represents a state with 20 federally recognized tribes and is a former chair of the Senate Indian Affairs committee, where he oversaw the investigation that put Jack Abramoff in jail for defrauding the Native American tribes that were his clients. Hardeen, the Navajo president's spokesman, says McCain has a long history of maintaining good relationships with tribes. When Hardeen was a reporter, McCain spoke to him briefly about his relationship with tribes. "He told me his proudest moment in politics was receiving the endorsement of every Arizona tribe when he ran for reelection in the Senate. That's how well he was respected by tribes then," Hardeen says.

But for McCain the problem of history remains. Native Americans are traditionally Democratic voters, so he is automatically at a disadvantage when trying to convince a poor, rural population with scant access to information to back him. In many traditional homes (known as "hogans") in Navajo country, it's common to see pictures of John F. Kennedy. "I can't explain why John Kennedy resonated with traditional Navajo people going back all the way to the early '60s," Hardeen says. But he did. And Obama is poised to benefit from that.

On Thursday, the AP reported John McCain was drastically cutting his ad spending in Colorado. New Mexico has looked out of reach for the Republicans for some time. Kalyn Free, the head of the Indigenous Democratic Network, an organization that focuses on recruiting Native American candidates and mobilizing Indian voters, doesn't think it's over yet. But she's confident of one thing: "The next president of the United States will not win the White House without the Indian vote. We've come a long way."

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