Monument Valley, a Navajo Nation tribal parkBuyenlarge AFP/Getty

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

With Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick running for Senate in Arizona, a bevy of candidates have stampeded into her House district to try and succeed her. To win, they will have to appeal to a unique group of swing voters: the Navajo Nation.

Native Americans comprise nearly 23 percent of the population in Arizona’s 1st District—the largest share by far in the country (and around 8 times larger than any other swing district). Most of those residents are Navajos, and Kirkpatrick made a pointed effort to engage the community in her three terms representing Eastern Arizona. Strong support helped her win last year’s election by 5 percentage points as other House Democrats lost tough districts around the country. And in a close election, Navajos could be a make-or-break bloc in 2016.

Andy Tobin, Republicans’ vanquished 2014 nominee, certainly agrees. He has decided not to run again, but the former state House speaker has advice for his party going forward: He said Republicans must have an early presence on the reservations, before the election goes into full swing, to win more Native American voters in 2016.

“I would say that Democrats are very entrenched and I think … what [Republicans] need to do is spend early time and resources on an ongoing basis, talking about what our position is, and not just wait for campaigns to kind of kick off and try to catch up,” Tobin said. 

While Native Americans in this district tend to vote more Democratic, recently elected Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez said that this group’s vote is up for grabs.

“The Navajo Nation is open to candidates that will fight for them,” said Nez, who backed Kirkpatrick in 2014. “If someone could just do the same thing [as Kirkpatrick] and represent rural Arizona, I think people will be open to whoever has … the strongest voice for Navajo people." 

Democrats are already planning their strategy to appeal to Native American voters in the district, following up on their aggressive outreach in 2014. State party spokeswoman Barbara Lubin said they will continue to invest heavily in reaching these communities.

“We’re going to have hundreds of people on the ground getting out the vote. We’re going to have an in-house call center, and then we are going to do new things,” Lubin said, including “reaching out to people whether it be through social media, more utilization of text messaging.” 

So far, former state Sen. Tom O’Halleran is the only declared Democratic candidate, and the party’s establishment—such as former state Attorney General Terry Goddard and 2014 gubernatorial nominee Fred DuVal—has wasted no time backing his bid. But O’Halleran, a Republican-turned-Democrat, is also touting the relationships he built with tribes when he chaired a Native-American-affairs committee in the state House, as well as his work with those communities on water, mining, and gaming issues. 

“I’m a retail politician,” said O’Halleran, who is already making an effort to visit the reservations and acquaint himself with tribe leadership. “I don’t just sit back and put some things on TV or put mailers out.”

He or another Democratic nominee—state Sens. Barbara McGuire and Catherine Miranda have established exploratory committees—could also benefit from having Kirkpatrick running on the ticket, said Phoenix-based Democratic consultant Rodd McLeod. Yet Republicans see an opening to win back the district, which the party’s presidential nominees have carried in recent elections.

"The key for Republicans in this open seat is to really to try to find common ground with the Native Americans up there,” said Republican consultant Chris Baker.

A large field of GOP candidates is already trying. Rancher Gary Kiehne, a self-funder who just lost the 2014 primary, says that his experience living and working in the district give him an advantage. (“I’ve been going to reservations for years and have employed a lot of Native Americans,” Kiehne said.) Former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, another contender, plugged the relationship he built with Native American tribes while he led the state Senate.

On Monday, two more Republican candidates jumped in: Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu and state House Speaker David Gowan, whose old campaign website prominently features a picture of him meeting with Navajo Code Talkers who served in World War II.

Nez, the Navajo Nation vice president, plans to sit down with the declared contenders as the election draws closer and, eventually, make an endorsement. But he also noted the Navajo Nation is encouraging an unnamed candidate to run.

And its influence might go even further—if not next year, then perhaps in a future election. Nez also mentioned that he has been urged to consider running for Congress. “I think there’s a responsibility that I have to carry out [as vice president], but down the road, you never know,” he said.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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