Daines Seeks to Woo Indian Country Voters

Remains to be seen whether those efforts will result in votes from Indian communities that skew heavily Democratic

By Matt Volz, Associated Press

HELENA – A delegation from Montana’s Crow Tribe met with Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer back in March to present him with a resolution affirming Israel’s right to exist and offer support from one nation that has fought to hold on to its territory to another one.

A photograph shows the group crammed in the Washington office of U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, with the Bozeman Republican beaming over the unlikely gathering.

The meeting illustrates the steps Daines has taken to win the support of Native Americans during his one term in Congress. Since 2013, he has pushed legislation to promote energy development on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, invited Fort Belknap and Fort Peck reservation leaders to testify in congressional hearings and introduced a bill for federal recognition of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Cree Indians.

Now that Daines is running for U.S. Senate, it remains to be seen whether those efforts will result in votes from Indian communities that skew heavily Democratic. But with Democratic U.S. Sen. John Walsh out of the race, and Butte schoolteacher Amanda Curtis hurriedly building her new campaign, Daines may have an opportunity to gain votes.

“We supported Walsh,” Crow chairman Darrin Old Coyote said. “Amanda Curtis is fairly new and is making contacts. A lot of my people don’t know her.”

Daines, on the other hand, has made multiple trips to the southeastern Montana reservation. He invited Old Coyote to attend President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Perhaps most importantly, he has promised the Crow tribe that he will work on one of their top priorities — permanently reinstating the Indian coal production tax credit, which could help the tribe boost mining operations on its lands.

“People know who’s helped us, who’s been effective and who speaks for us,” Old Coyote said. “Whoever’s going to be the voice for Indian County, that’s going to be the candidate we support.”

An Associated Press analysis of the 2012 U.S. Senate election between Democratic incumbent Jon Tester and Republican challenger Denny Rehberg shows the odds are against Daines. Tester took 64 percent of the vote compared to Rehberg’s 30 percent in 59 voting precincts within the boundaries of Montana’s seven Indian reservations.

Leaving out the precincts from the Flathead reservation, where non-Indian residents outnumber Indian residents two-to-one, the results are more skewed. Tester won 80 percent of the vote in those 39 remaining precincts.

Statewide, Tester won the election with 49 percent of the vote.

Tribal leaders say Daines has been more responsive to them than his predecessor in the House, Rehberg. Mark Azure, president of the Fort Belknap reservation’s tribal government, credited Daines with listening to officials during a visit and organizing a congressional hearing on problems with a $1.9 billion federal land buy-back program.

But Azure said he believes it will still be difficult for Daines to win votes on the reservation.

“Historically, I think we’ve gone Democratic,” Azure said. “I don’t think that will change, but it will be interesting to see.”

Daines said in a recent interview that he’s not in it for the votes. Native Americans can tell when a politician is sincere or pandering, and he wants to make it clear to the tribes that he is there to work on the issues, he said.

“I respect their view that they want to be heard in Washington. Whether they vote (for me) or not, that’s their decision,” Daines said.

Montana State University political scientist David Parker said Daines appears to be employing a strategy with an eye toward future elections.

“It is a strategy of someone who is playing the long game,” Parker said. “I definitely think Steve Daines and the folks around him are sophisticated in looking at the big picture.”

Meanwhile, Curtis is working to build name recognition in Indian Country. She has included reservations in her campaign stops. The jobs plan she released last week mentions helping tribes to invest in job training and education, and she told reporters she supports reinstating the Indian coal production tax.

Curtis said she supports Native American communities creating their own economic-development plans.