Native American Vote Could Tip South Dakota's Senate Race

Democrats have historically been boosted in South Dakota by Native Americans. But this year, Rick Weiland is fighting off independent Larry Pressler for tribal support.

Democrat Rick Weiland's only chance to win in South Dakota's Senate race rests on the state's Indian reservations. This cycle, however, Weiland is not the only one competing for the Native American vote.

"Obviously I need to get every vote I can get. There are no votes to waste," Weiland says.

Nearly 10 percent of the state's population is Native American, and Weiland's campaign is optimistic it can make great gains with Native American voters this year. After bitter legal showdowns, early voting is available on a majority of the state's nine Indian reservations, cutting down on some of the arduous travel times that once kept Native Americans from the polls. Key tribal elections at the state's Pine Ridge Reservation and a controversial ballot initiative to change the name of Shannon County to Oglala Lakota County is also expected to boost turnout this cycle.

All of that is good news for Democrats, who have traditionally relied on tribes to win statewide elections. In 2002, the Native American vote helped Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson eke out a victory over his Republican challenger, John Thune.

But in 2014 there is a wild card in the race that could keep Weiland from reaching his full potential with Native American voters. And in a race this tight, which already appears to be slipping away from the Democrat, that could make the difference and hand a pivotal Senate seat to Republicans.

Recent polls show it's unlikely that independent candidate Larry Pressler can attract enough Native American voters to make himself the next senator from South Dakota. But as in the election at large, there is concern that Pressler will siphon traditionally Democratic voters away from Weiland. Even with a shoestring budget, Pressler has managed to orchestrate a tribal "listening tour." He earned the endorsement of his longtime friend and Oglala Sioux leader Gerald One Feather before the leader passed away in August. And Pressler has made a slew of campaign promises targeted at getting Native American voters on his side.

"I have been on every reservation," Pressler, who is a former Republican senator from the state, told National Journal. "I have done a lot of work over the years. I secured all kinds of earmarks for all of the tribes when I was there. I have worked pretty hard."

Pressler has built his campaign around a promise to create an "international Native American Holocaust Memorial Museum" in Wounded Knee, S.D., to commemorate the human-rights abuses that have plagued American Indians throughout the country's history.

Still, some on the reservations say Pressler's record on delivering for Native Americans in South Dakota is inconsistent.

"Our elders are highlighting the fact that Pressler was not really there for Native Americans," says state Rep. Kevin Killer, a Democrat and a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe.

During his three terms in the Senate, Pressler got mixed reviews from Native American leaders in South Dakota. According to Mother Jones, his support for legislation that forced tribes to pay taxes on newly attained land was unpopular in the state. And Pressler admitted during a debate in September that he wished he would have done more to reduce poverty on reservations when he was in the Senate.

Yet even though Pressler says he has just one paid campaign staffer working for him and no internal polls to estimate how he has been faring with Native American voters, his proposals have helped him win the endorsement of the Native Sun News, an influential Native American newspaper.

"I have been in this business for a long long time. I have seen Democrats and Republicans come and go," says Tim Giago, the founder of the Native Sun News. "What I am trying to do out here is ask our people in editorials to please stop being locked into one party. Neither party has done you any good. Sign yourself up as an independent so both parties have to come to you instead of just being taken for granted like we have for years."

Giago admits Pressler's presence in the race could fracture the Native American vote enough that Republican candidate and former Gov. Mike Rounds may reap the benefits of his endorsement. One Native American leader, Bryan Brewer, the Oglala Sioux president, says his biggest concern is that Pressler could cost Weiland a victory.

"It hurts. It hurts Rick's opportunity. As a tribe, we are really pushing for Rick to get in," Brewer says. "We know the Indian vote across South Dakota could make the difference."

A recent poll in South Dakota shows Rounds holding a comfortable, 9-point lead over Weiland heading into the final week of the campaign. Even plagued by an immigrant-visa scandal, Rounds appears to be on track to capture the Senate seat for Republicans on Election Day. Polls show Pressler has only 13 percent of the vote, but 19 percent of his supporters identify as Democrats. As long as Pressler is in the race, Weiland's path to victory remains littered with obstacles.

Yet, Weiland's campaign has run an impressive ground game to mobilize Native American voters. Weiland has been to every reservation, hosted 12 town-hall meetings in Indian country, earned the endorsements of all nine tribes, and attended every powwow in the state.

Weiland has built his candidacy as referendum on land-rights issues that are important to Native American voters, highlighted by his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, which Rounds supports.

"The tribes are united against Keystone. They see it as an assault on the sacred waters and mother earth, and it is a big deal to them," Weiland says.

Weiland has a steep climb, however. He estimates he needs 80 percent of Native American voters to turn out for him in this election if he is going to win.

"I told them If we get 50 percent of the votes out in Indian country, I am going to lose and Rounds will win and Keystone will likely get built," Weiland says. "But if I get 80 percent to turn out and vote for me, I am going to win, and I will do everything in my power to keep Keystone from being built."

If elected, Weiland says he has already secured a place on the Indian Affairs Committee. He also has promised the tribes that he will visit every reservation, every year.

"There is a lot of cynicism out there that a lot of candidates only show up when they want their vote, but I have been showing up all of my public life," Weiland says.

In the past, Native American voters have saved Democrats in close elections. This election cycle, however, with an independent making an effort to court Native American voters, Weiland may have a harder time waging an upset with the Native American vote alone.