Of the 13 counties Sen. Jon Tester won on Tuesday, seven overlap with Indian reservations.
Organizers in these communities knew that the 8 percent of Montana voters who are Native could make the difference in the Treasure State’s tight U.S. Senate race. Patrick Yawakie, community organizer with Montana Native Vote, said they did just that.
“It exemplifies our power in elections, and in our voting bloc to swing elections,” he said.
Yawakie has spent this campaign on the Flathead Indian Reservation north of Missoula, working to connect Indian residents with ballots. He and his colleagues spent hours on the road, and worked in the long shadow of voter-suppression policies in past decades.
But at least in the Senate race, the numbers suggest it paid off. As of Oct. 26, Montana Native Vote had registered 423 new voters on the Flathead Indian Reservation, said the group’s executive director, Marci McLean. Tester’s margin of victory in Lake County, where about half of the reservation lies, was 294 votes.
“We feel very successful on that,” said Yawakie. Statewide, every county with reservation lands saw an increase in turnout over the 2014 midterms, and McLean said that Montana Native Vote had registered 2,345 voters by Oct. 26 — a significant gain in a state whose incumbent senator held on by about 15,300 votes.
McLean said she hadn’t heard from Tester’s campaign since Tuesday. But in an emailed statement, Montana’s re-elected U.S. senator said that “Native voter turnout was high and I am humbled by the support I received from Montana’s native people. I’ll never stop fighting to deliver better health care, economic opportunity, and education across Indian Country.”
Dave Beck, professor of Native American studies at the University of Montana, said that Tester “has a strong record in Indian Country. He always shows up in Indian country, so I think that’s part of the reason that the Native vote is so strongly in his favor.”
Noting the spikes in turnout, he added that, “I think that the work of groups like Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote really got groups excited to get folks to register, and then to go to the polls.”
While much of the excitement around these midterms flowed through social media, Yawakie credits old-fashioned, face-to-face contact with getting out the vote on the reservations.
“I think our Indian taco feeds played a big part,” he said. “Whenever we bring them in to Indian taco feeds, a lot of people don’t have money for stamps [to mail ballots], so we’re able to collect ballots.” Guests at these events could also find registration information, sign up for rides to the polls, and learn about candidates.
“We’re really trying to create tradition for these types of feeds,” he continued. “Our events are totally child-friendly, and we want [them] to see the parents voting, getting educated, remembering these events as part of a community so they have something to look forward to as they get older.”
Star power also helped. While Tester’s campaign turned to Pearl Jam, Montana Native Vote brought actor Adam Beach — who appeared in films such as "Smoke Signals" and "Flags of Our Fathers" — to Polson the Saturday before the election. “The buzz around that and the youth [reaction] was huge,” he said.
The greater turnout, McLean said, “just goes to show that Natives are paying attention and realizing that we have to turn out in the polls if we want to see positive change in our communities.”
Down-ballot, she’s pleased with Native Americans’ performance in legislative races. Of 14 who ran, nine were elected, bringing the Legislature’s total Native membership to 11. The 6-Mill Levy, which the group backed, also won voters’ reapproval.
But several other races didn’t go Native Vote’s way. Kathleen Williams, its favored U.S. House candidate, lost to Rep. Greg Gianforte. Ballot Initiative 185, which would have funded Medicaid expansion through a tobacco tax, also went down.
Two Flathead-area local candidates that Montana Native Vote backed — Ashley Morigeau for District Court Judge and Caroline McDonald for Lake County Commissioner — also lost.
Tribal-county relations took center stage in the latter contest. While the Democrat McDonald had called on the county to improve its ties with the tribes, Republican incumbent Gale Decker stressed the financial challenges of tribal trust land and Public Law 280.
Decker has repeatedly denied holding any anti-tribal sentiment, and briefly dropped in on one of Montana Native Vote’s taco feeds in Arlee. But on his campaign website, he attacked McDonald’s family ties to the tribes, and warned that they “seem determined to get a foothold in our County government.”
Yawakie didn’t sugarcoat his view on Decker’s campaign. “The current rhetoric, the racist rhetoric coming from the Trump Administration, it makes candidates more comfortable being able to speak in those kinds of racist rhetoric. … We feel like it’s a dying breed.”
Overall, McLean said, “I think we did well, I look at the positive side of our work.”
But another result from Tuesday augurs new challenges for Montana Native Vote. Legislative Referendum 129, which restricts absentee ballot collection to certain individuals, passed overwhelmingly.
McLean predicted that if it takes effect, “it will significantly impact our efforts, because picking up ballots is a huge part of our program. … It will certainly change the way our program works, and we’re not sure what that change will be now.”
But if Native Vote gained new hurdles in these midterms, it also gained strength.
“We collected a lot of members this year, maybe 3,000 new members,” McLean said.
They’re already engaging them for new plans: for the legislative session, local and tribal races, and the next time Montanans will turn out en masse to the polls.
“Certainly we’re looking ahead to 2020,” she said.