WASHINGTON -- Though Native American and Alaska Native communities are often overlooked in electoral politics, their votes could decide the outcome of three close congressional contests this November.
In Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich (D), who's running against former Attorney General Dan Sullivan (R), is contrasting his record on issues relevant to Alaska Natives with Sullivan's past challenge of subsistence rights. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) has run ads narrated in Navajo to engage with voters living on some of the country's largest reservations. And in the race to represent Montana's sole House district, Democrat John Lewis is frequenting pow wows and reservation events in an attempt to show that he'd be more responsive to Native Americans' concerns than his opponent, former state Sen. Ryan Zinke (R).
Begich, Kirkpatrick and Lewis may be taking a page out of the playbook of retiring Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), who beat then-Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) by just 524 votes in 2002. In a cycle when Republicans took control of the Senate and increased their House majority, Johnson won with the help of unusually high Native American voter turnout.
The National Congress of American Indians, which leads Native Vote, a national effort to mobilize Native voters, sees 2014 as an opportunity to engage in voter registration and voter protection, build databases to track voter patterns and encourage more Natives to run for office.
"In these key races where we have a substantial population of Native Americans, in tight races we clearly make differences, it's been tested time and time again," NCAI Executive Director Jacqueline Pata told The Huffington Post. "In Alaska, where 20 percent of the population is Native, that could be a significant difference in the outcome of that election."
"Its taken us a lot to get here," Pata said. "Native Americans were the last able to exercise the right to vote. It's hard to get our community energized around federal or state elections verses tribal elections, which they're more excited about. Our goal is creating sustainable infrastructure in our communities, to keep our grassroots engaged so we can build momentum."
That momentum will be tested in Alaska, where more than 220 of the 566 federally recognized Indian Nations are located.
Begich was formerly the mayor of Anchorage, and that may help him: 12.4 percent of its population is Alaskan Native or Native American, a higher percentage than in any other city in the country.
"We're committed to going after votes in rural Alaska as aggressively as in urban Alaska," Begich campaign spokesman Max Croes told The Huffington Post last week. "Anchorage doesn't exist in a bubble."
Croes said the campaign has opened 13 field offices in predominantly Alaska Native communities, and has put out robocalls translated into two Alaska Native languages.
"It's folks in the communities who are the ones that are driving the outreach," he added. "It's better than anything that Karl Rove is going to do."
Sullivan's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Since Alaska’s rural communities receive a substantial amount of federal aid, Sullivan may see a need to disassociate himself from the anti-federal spending rhetoric of the conservative Club For Growth, which backed him in his primary race.
Begich said as much in a February interview with Indian Country Today.
"The power that [Alaska Natives] have is enormous if they exercise it," he told the network. "They need to turn the vote out. The people I am running against have very little interest in Alaska Native issues. I need more friends, more allies to change the deck. You have to kick the people out who are not representing your needs and concerns."
Beyond its field efforts, Begich's campaign has been touting his leadership on issues pertinent to Alaska Natives in the Senate, where he serves with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Murkowski owes her presence in the Senate in part to Alaska Natives, who helped her beat tea party darling Joe Miller in a striking 2010 write-in campaign. She was appointed the National Republican Senatorial Committee's head of outreach to Native American communities last year.
As part of his work with the Indian Affairs committee, Begich has introduced legislation that allows for a traditional Alaska Native food option in public facilities. In a more confrontational move, Begich put a hold on President Barack Obama’s nominee to head up the Bureau of Indian Affairs until the federal government paid out back payments for tribal health facilities, which ultimately amounted to about $450 million.
"He pressed the issue to force the conversation and the end result is that back payments are being made," Croes said.
Begich also worked with Murkowski to get veterans pension payments restored for those Alaska Natives who served in the Alaska Territorial Guard during WWII, after the Obama administration attempted to withdraw the benefits in 2009.
Sullivan, on the other hand, has his name attached to a controversial anti-subsistence lawsuit that would have reversed a lower court's ruling allowing for subsistence fishing and hunting preference for rural Alaskans. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Sullivan's appeal.
When asked, at a candidate forum in April, what he'd to about subsistence rights if he were elected, Sullivan deflected the question.
Montana's At-Large House District
Lewis, a Democrat who served as state director for former Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), seems well aware of the importance of reaching out to Native Americans.
Though the GOP has controlled the seat for 20 years, Lewis' supporters think his interactions with Native American communities will put him within striking distance.
"The Native people are excited about Lewis," James Steele, the Montana Indian Democrats Council board president and a resident of the Flathead reservation, told The Huffington Post. "His outreach has been warmly received. I think he's doing very well with his campaign efforts in terms of his community."
"The unemployment rate [on reservations] is always higher than the national average," Steele said. "That's always a big one, the economy. We need jobs for Indian people and I think [Lewis] has presented an open ear, a willingness to listen and I think that's helping him a lot. His personality is very down-to-earth."
Zinke, a former state senator and Navy SEAL, is pushing back against the narrative that Lewis is the friendlier candidate to Native Americans. He's attended the Indian Days celebration on the Blackfeet reservation and the Crow Agency's Crow Fair.
But at an event in March, Zinke made comments that could be interpreted as disparaging towards Native Americans.
“Some of the Indian reservations, you know, nowhere is more apparent, the dependence on the government," he said. "You know, more than some of the tribes that have a 70 percent unemployment rate. And then so, you know, you go back to, you want to feed someone, you need to teach a person how to fish."
Zinke spokeswoman Shelby DeMars said in an email that the main difference between the two candidates involves support for coal development.
"We need to work to remove government restrictions that are getting in the way of energy development, especially coal," Zinke said. "Coal is one of the most abundant natural resources in Montana and presents a great opportunity to improve the economy in Indian Country. We need to stop Obama's War on Coal and make sure the tribe cannot only develop their natural resources, but that they receive the benefits of those resources developed on tribal lands."
Despite Lewis' best efforts, upheaval elsewhere on the ballot could hinder his chances in November. After Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) withdrew his re-election bid due to reports that he plagiarized his master's thesis, Democrats nominated former state Rep. Amanda Curtis, who suffers from low name recognition. The perception that the Senate race isn't competitive could dampen turnout among Democrats.
Kirkpatrick was born on the Fort Apache reservation, where she grew up speaking both English and Apache. Native Americans make up 25 percent of the district's population.
"Ann's got really deep ties to rural Arizona and specifically to tribal areas," campaign spokesman D. B. Mitchell told The Huffington Post.
While rancher Gary Kiehne, state House Speaker Andy Tobin and state Rep. Adam Kwasman were embroiled in a close primary contest, Kirkpatrick got an early start reaching out to Native American voters. Her campaign put up two radio ads in Navajo, an acknowledgment that after she lost her seat in 2010, support from Native Americans was instrumental in her comeback victory in 2012.
Tobin, who has a slight lead over Kiehne after Tuesday night's primary, did not respond to a request for comment about how he would reach out to Native American communities leading up to the general election.
"She really pays attention to Native American needs within her district," Coconino County Supervisor Lena Fowler said of Kirkpatrick. "She's been instrumental in bringing attention to some of the needs on Navajo Nation -- veterans needs, senior needs, health care. These are issues that have been long-lingering."