Mark Trahant: Native candidates being left behind in big money race

Arizona Sen. Carlyle Begay (R), center, is seeking the Republican nomination for Arizona's 1st Congressional district. Photo from Facebook

#NativeVote16 – Big money targets Arizona’s first congressional
Three Native candidates; one Arizona seat
By Mark Trahant
Trahant Reports

My list of Native American candidates for Congress keeps changing. (Actually my entire databases are moving parts because I keep adding new names, see new reports filed, and find other data). I am now back to eight Native American candidates for Congress. Well, maybe nine. I had dropped Shawn Redd from my active list because he had not filed a campaign finance report. Redd has now done that. (Previous: Seven Native American candidates for Congress.) I also removed Kayto Sullivan from my database. Let’s move that up to a “maybe.”

Redd, Navajo, is running as a Republican in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. Remember that’s the district with the highest percentage of Native American voters. In his latest filing, Redd raised $8,762, spent $7,615, leaving cash on hand of $1,785 as of March 31. He significantly trails another Navajo Republican, Arizona state Sen. Carlyle Begay. Begay raised $39,906 during the same time frame. (Spreadsheet here. Previous: Little dollars could turn the world of politics upside down.)

But let’s be clear about the Arizona 1st Congressional District: It has the most Native American voters of any district in the country, but it’s also an open seat, and there will be a lot of money thrown at winning this seat.

Two years ago this seat was one of the most expensive for so-called “dark money.” Some $2.5 million was spent by the conservative groups, American Action Network, and Young Guns Network. This is where large donors fund independent political action groups who buy mostly negative ads against a candidate. These independent campaigns do not need to disclose the source of their funding. In the 2014 campaign these groups spent more than the Republican candidate, Andy Tobin, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Republican Congressional candidate Shawn Redd, right, on the campaign trail. Photo from Shawn Redd for Congress 2016 / Facebook

Indian Country, of course, cannot compete with that kind of spending. But this district two years ago defeated big money and if the Native American vote turns out that can happen again.

Redd and Begay are counting on help from Navajo voters during the primary. But that’s a long shot for a couple of reasons.

First, Arizona requires voters in primary elections to be either unaffiliated or registered as Republicans. The registration deadline is August 1. And early voting begins a couple of days later.

The second reason is math. In Apache County, where most of the voters are Navajo, there are 26,784 active Democrats and only 7,893 Republicans. That’s a huge gap. The good news is there are also some 13,000 voters who are independent and that is a potential source of primary votes. The numbers are similar in other Arizona counties with large Native American populations.

But there is a “however” here.

Big money is flowing into the 1st Congressional district in Arizona but two Native candidates are trailing in the finance race. Image by Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

This is a district where the national Democratic Party is risking a future base. If Begay or Redd can somehow win the primary, they would be strong candidates in the general election. Yes, it’s because they are Navajos, but especially in Begay’s case, it’s also because he works hard at constituent services. In March, for example, when a Navajo girls’ basketball team was sanctioned by referees for wearing traditional tsiyéél hair styles, Begay filed legislation to make state law clear.

So it may be a long shot but Begay could win this primary. Two years ago only 52,487 people bothered to vote in the primary. The winning candidate had 18,814 votes. This time around that winning number will likely be smaller because there are four other well-funded Republicans splitting the vote. The question is, then, how many Navajos will vote Republican in a primary?

Democrats have different problems in this race. Kayto Sullivan announced that he was running. He has not raised any funds but on Twitter said he was in Window Rock gathering signatures. He also tweeted: “Many candidates running for congressional office have donations of several thousand but I’m just a normal person with nothing near that.”

Perhaps Sullivan won’t be the only Native American Democrat running. There is still time for a surprise candidate to join the race. The filing deadline is June 1.

The party apparatus has more or less settled on former State Sen. Tom O’Halleran. Like Begay he switched parties, once serving as a Republican in the legislature, now a Democrat. If the race ends up being between O’Halleran and one of the other big money Republicans, he will probably do no worse than the current incumbent, Ann Kirkpatrick.

Navajos will likely turn out and vote in significant numbers in November because of the presidential race. And O’Halleran is likely to benefit from that. Unless his opponent is Begay. Then all bets are off.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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