There's a lot going wrong for Ann Kirkpatrick. As she fights to hold her House seat, the Arizona Democrat faces the smaller, more-conservative pool of voters a midterm election brings, and she's doing it at a time when the national political currents have her party swimming upstream. That's trouble for Kirkpatrick, who narrowly won her House seat in 2012 and is facing a frisky challenge this time around from state House Speaker Andy Tobin.
But unlike other Democrats, Kirkpatrick has the benefit of another, smaller election: The Nov. 4 midterms are on the same date as the Navajo Nation's presidential election.
And for Kirkpatrick, that's good news. Nearly one-fourth of the 1st District's voters are Native American, and they overwhelmingly support Democrats—especially Kirkpatrick, who grew up on an Apache reservation and has released two Navajo-language radio ads this cycle.
And while Kirkpatrick's ties with Native American voters are strong even for a Democrat, Tobin's ties are weaker than several of his fellow Republicans, said Jonathan Nez, a member of the Navajo Nation Council, which endorsed Kirkpatrick. Republican former Reps. J.D. Hayworth and Rick Renzi, for example, "were friends of the Navajo," he said, noting Tobin has not been present on the reservation.
Kirkpatrick is a more familiar face than Tobin, and she has a record of prioritizing funding for the Indian Health Service and infrastructure, said Deswood Tome, an adviser to Navajo President Ben Shelly. Her spot on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee doesn't hurt, he added.
Locals say they expect high turnout among the district's more than 100,000 registered Navajo voters. Their presidential election features two well-known candidates, and a controversy over one candidate's eligibility has inflamed a long-standing debate over what it means to be a member of the Navajo Nation.
The presidential race pits former president Joe Shirley Jr. against Chris Deschene, a former Democratic nominee for Arizona secretary of state. It's the first race to allow a president to run for a third term after a court ruled that presidents could run again after sitting out for a term; Shirley served as president from 2003 to 2011.
The race became even more highly charged when a complaint was filed against Deschene over his inability to speak fluent Navajo, which is a requirement of presidential candidates. For now, Deschene will stay on the ballot as the issue works its way through the Navajo court system, and Nez said the debate over the Navajo language seems to have energized voters.
Navajos are particularly motivated to vote, Nez said, because the questions around Deschene's candidacy have turned the presidential race into a debate over the tribe's identity. "The more the media is talking about this and [Navajo] Supreme Court is getting involved in this, it's beginning to turn to who is Navajo." Nez said. "The question of who is a Navajo [in terms of] culture, tradition, language."
"We think it's pretty important," said D.J. Quinlan, executive director of the state Democratic Party. "It's hard to say what the effect is going to be, but this is the most competitive presidential race in a long time."
It's an Edge, but of What Order?
Nearly 65,000 Navajos voted in the 2010 presidential election, and its voter participation rates have jumped significantly during Navajo presidential election years.
Hoping to fully leverage that election, the Kirkpatrick campaign is "unleashing our largest tribal GOTV effort ever, and we expect this outreach—coupled with local elections—will have a major impact up and down the ballot," Kirkpatrick campaign spokesman D.B. Mitchell said in a statement.
But just how many Navajo voters will come out for Kirkpatrick is a hotly debated question.
Native American turnout can be hard to predict, especially in a rural district where pollsters can't reach voters who don't have landline phones. It also doesn't help Democrats that Navajo and Arizona elections have different polling places and some voters may not participate in both elections.
A Republican poll conducted in mid-September showed Kirkpatrick trailing her challenger, Tobin, by 6 points—but only 4 percent of the poll's respondents identified as Native American. Another Republican poll earlier in the month had a sample that was only 6 percent Native American.
Democrats called foul on both polls, noting that nearly a fourth of the district's population is Native American. Minority turnout rates tend to be disproportionately low, but an analysis by the Phoenix-based political tip sheet Yellow Sheet Report found that 17 percent of the district's precincts had at least 75 percent Native American voting-age populations, and that Kirkpatrick won 89 percent of the vote in those precincts in 2012.
Quinlan said he generally expects about 18 percent of votes in the district to come from Native Americans. He was hesitant to attack the pollster's intentions, but said such a low sampling of Native Americans had to skew the poll.
"If you wanted to construct a poll that would artificially show the Republican in front, you'd basically cut out the Native American vote," he said. "It's as if I released a poll with Republicans only making up 8 percent of the voters."
Jon McHenry, one of the pollsters who conducted the survey for North Star Opinion Research, noted that another 6 percent of respondents declined to give their ethnicity, which often occurs when a respondent gives a specific tribe. That still only leaves room for a 10 percent Native American sample at most, but McHenry said if the poll's results were far off, Democrats would have countered with their own.
"I'm going to be pretty comfortable until I see internal polls from them showing differently," he said.