There are three elements in successful political campaigns: money, organization and voter participation. The historic re-election of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, had all three … generated by Alaska Natives.
The story started with the defeat of Murkowski during the Republican primary by Joe Miller. In most years, in most elections, that would have been the end of the story. The senator would have thanked her supporters and gone on to do other things.
But 2010 was no ordinary year for a lot of reasons. The first one being a change in the election laws because of a Supreme Court decision. That decision meant that a third-party group could spend money on behalf of a candidate. "In Alaska, one independent group fully immersed itself in the new age of campaign spending, nearly doubling the amount of money marshaled in support of Murkowski's re-election bid: the 'super PAC' called Alaskans Standing Together, created, managed and supported by Alaska's regional Native corporations,” wrote the Anchorage Daily News.
How much money? The News reported that Alaska Standing Together spent some $1.2 million in the three weeks before the election.
One interesting twist on the Alaska Standing Together strategy is that they also ran ads against the Democrat, Scott McAdams. Scott's problem was that he's a “nice guy but he's not electable,” the ads read. It quoted a New York Times projection saying McAdams only had a 4.3 percent chance of winning.
That made the election simple. Vote for a candidate who could not win, McAdams; or one who was dismissive of Alaska Native rights and corporations, Miller; or the third alternative, put everything on the table for the incumbent, the write-in candidate who had an uphill climb, but could win.
Money? Check. Organization? At the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Fairbanks, I saw that organization at work. Voter education included brochures, rubber wristbands, and other visual aids to successfully write in a candidate on a ballot.
And passion? At AFN, former SeaAlaska Chairman Byron Mallott introduced Murkowski and called this a "voyage into history." He dismissed critics of Native Corporations saying that the corporations represented an "expression of pride in Alaska, a confidence in Alaska, and an expression of who we are as Native people." Then, he added, "The people I want to support are those with us now."
The result of that passion was a higher than normal turnout in rural Alaska, often Native villages.
It’s always a mystery why Native Americans people choose to vote, or not to vote. On the Navajo Nation, for example, some communities voted in strong numbers during this election. The community of Sawmill, for example, voted in roughly the same numbers for the state election as it did for the Navajo Nation election (held on the same day with polling places often side by side). However in Red Mesa while nearly 60 percent voted in the tribal election, only about half that voted in the state election.
In fact, across Indian Country, communities that turned out in record numbers during the past presidential election essentially passed on this election cycle.
That pass was unfortunate for the many talented Native American candidates. Arizona Secretary of State candidate Christopher Deschene, a Navajo, lost by a wide margin— so turnout might not have helped. But it's hard to tell because (as Alaska shows) you need three elements to come together: voter participation, organization, and money. Unlike Alaska, there were no outside expenditures from tribes or organizational efforts. Deschene was on his own. Unfortunately that's the common story for most Native American candidates. There is neither enough money nor logistical support.
President Obama's re-election campaign will bring some of this logistical support back to Indian Country. In fact, Native candidates who run in 2012 will have a better chance just because of the intensity of a presidential election cycle. But over the long term to be successful in winning elections there has to be a lot more than just poster campaigns calling people to vote. Every election, every successful election, also requires money and organization.
So goes Alaska … could go Indian Country. One day.