From left: former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, Arizona State Rep. Jamescita Peshlakai and U.S. Senate candidate Mark Kelly. "Senator Peshlakai is a member of the Navajo Nation and fellow Desert Storm veteran. She has shown a strength and dedication to helping others. Excited to work together, Senator!" a post on Kelly's social media read.

Mark Trahant: The Native vote is at play in the 2020 election cycle

Mark Trahant: It's quite the election season already
Arizona could decide the control of the U.S. Senate … and the Native American vote is often a critical factor in that state’s election outcome #NativeVote20
By Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

So far there are at least 17 Democrats running for president. Plus another two or three possible Republican challengers to Donald J. Trump. And, add to that, Howard Schultz, the former chief executive of Starbucks, who is positing a run as an independent. There are a lot of names to keep track of (we have a spreadsheet for that.)

It's quite the election season. Already. And the race for president is not the only game in town. Now is the moment when candidates are starting to line up for the U.S. Senate and the House (as well as top posts in state governments).

What is the outlook for Native American candidates in that mix? Keep watching. It’s still early in the cycle and there are potential Native American candidates in Kansas, Alaska, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and South Dakota.

There are 34 Senate seats in play, including a special election in Arizona for the seat of the late John McCain. That race may be the most competitive in the country. The political web site, FiveThirtyEight, says it “already looks tough for everyone … and it could decide which party controls the chamber.”

Let that sink in: Arizona could decide the control of the U.S. Senate … and the Native American vote is often a critical factor in that state’s election outcomes.

Republican Martha McSally was appointed to that post and now she’s running to hold the seat for the last two years of McCain’s term. But McSally may not be the only Republican in the race.

On the Democratic side there are at least two major candidates, Mark Kelly, a retired Navy combat pilot, engineer, and astronaut, and Rep. Ruben Gallegos, representing Phoenix and Glendale in Congress, and an Iraq combat veteran with the U.S. Marines.

Gallegos recently tweeted: “I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m looking seriously at running for the U.S. Senate in 2020, and that hasn’t changed. I’ll be making a final decision and announcement soon.”

Kelly has already announced his candidacy. He calls the race his “next mission.” In his video announcement, Kelly said: “I care about people. I care about the state of Arizona. I care about this nation. So because of that, I've decided that I'm launching a campaign for the United States Senate.”

Kelly also happens to be married to former Rep. Gabby Giffords, a Tucson Democrat. An opinion in The Washington Post described it this way: “His public profile is defined in large part by his relationship to his wife, which is almost unprecedented for a male politician in America. It has worked the other way around on many occasions, usually after the husband died, but not when the wife was elected first.”

Kelly has been successful raising money -- a quick million in his first 24 hours.

Arizona state Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, Navajo, is the treasurer for Kelly’s campaign. This ties the campaign to the state’s tribal nations in a visible way -- especially the Navajo Nation.

“I was driving along a lonely dusty road up in my district on the reservation,” Peshlakai told Indian Country Today. “And he says, ‘this is Mark Kelly.’ And I thought, oh my gosh, this is a telemarketer.”

But it was Kelly asking Peshlakai to join his campaign and add the voices from Native communities throughout the state. Both Kelly and Peshlakai served in the first Gulf War and Operation Desert Storm.

Most of the Senate races will be defined by incumbents. In New Mexico, for example, Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat, is likely to run for his third term. Udall is vice chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee.

Montana Sen. Steve Daines, another member of the Indian Affairs Committee, will be up again in 2020. A recent Big Sky poll shows a tight race ahead: 47 percent of those surveyed say Daines has done a good or excellent job and 52 percent say his performance was fair or poor. But no Democrat has come forward yet.

Some of the long shot races will be in Oklahoma and South Dakota. Sen. Jim Inhofe has served for 24 years. He recently told The National Journal that he is “not necessarily" seeking re-election but has no plans to leave. Should he not run, watch Rep. Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee, and Rep. Tom Cole, Chickasaw, as potential candidates. South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds, a former governor, will also face voters in 2020.

Alaska is another state with another Republican incumbent on the ballot, Sen. Dan Sullivan. One potential Democrat could be former Lt. Gov. Val Davidson,Yupik. (She could also be recruited to take on U.S. Rep. Don Young.) But it’s also possible that Davidson waits and runs for governor in the next cycle.

And there is one other bit of election news from Alaska. Former Sen. Mike Gravel says he may run for the presidency as a Democrat. He’s 88 and full of fire. He tweeted Wednesday: “The idea that this country has a true democracy is absurd. Everyone knows in their heart of hearts that we're ruled by elites, Wall Street, etc. We need serious, fundamental political reform - real, direct democracy: a Legislature of the People to decide policy.”

Mark Trahant is the editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter @TrahantReports.

This story originally appeared on Indian Country Today on March 21, 2019.

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