Oct. 8, 2010 -- For Arizona Democrat Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who was born and raised on an Apache Indian reservation east of Phoenix, the key to re-election may lie with her roots.
Kirkpatrick's district, the vast rural northeastern quadrant of Arizona, is home to the largest Native American population of any congressional district in the country. One-in-five voters is Native American, with most hailing from the Navajo Nation.
While the Native American vote rarely receives attention in state or national elections, it could be a decisive factor in Kirkpatrick's race and other key battlegrounds this year.
The Navajo Nation is holding tribal presidential and council elections also on Nov. 2, and for the first time in Arizona, a Navajo candidate and Democrat will appear on a statewide ballot, running for secretary of state.
Both developments could turn out an infusion of predominantly Democratic supporters for Kirkpatrick and other statewide candidates, observers said.
Kirkpatrick, a one-term incumbent, appears neck-and-neck if not slightly behind her Republican challenger, dentist Paul Gosar, according to several polls. But her campaign has said that the Navajo vote is one reason they're fiercely optimistic.
"What we're seeing is that the race is very close, but most polls that show Ann back, very rarely capture the Native American vote," said a source close to the Kirkpatrick campaign. "Phones can be hard to come by on many reservations."
Native Americans typically make up 16 to 18 percent of the vote in Arizona's first congressional district, with turnout higher in years when the Navajo Nation has concurrently held its elections, as it did in 2002 and 2006.
"The Navajo Nation has a lot of pull in northern Arizona because of the number of people that turn out," said Kimmeth Yazzie with the Navajo Nation Election Administration. "Most are very Democratic, but it does depend on each person's position on the issues."
Yazzie said he expects turnout this year to be at least as strong as it was in 2006, when 66 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the tribal elections and many cast separate ballots for state races. Statewide voter turnout in Arizona in 2006 was 60 percent.
Turnout a Big Challenge for Native American Vote
"The Native American vote is pretty significant in the sense that the state has a concentrated population in rural areas – and while they make up a small percentage overall, these communities are in contested areas for Democrats and Republicans," said Thom Wallace, a spokesman for the National Congress of American Indians.
But just how significant that vote will be depends on turnout, a challenge in many Native American communities, one that is compounded by the fact that voters must cast two separate ballots -- one for tribal offices, another for state and national candidates.
The Navajo moved their tribal elections to coincide with statewide ballots eight years ago and coordinated with state election officials to allow people to cast both sets of votes at a single polling location.
Many tribes, however, continue to hold elections on different dates or offer ballots at a separate location from state polls. The Yavapai-Apache, for example, which also reside in Arizona's first congressional district, held their elections on Saturday.
"In the past there's been a disconnect between people casting votes in tribal elections and casting votes in statewide elections," said Eileen Luna-Firebaugh, an expert in Native American politics at the University of Arizona. "Getting Indian people to vote is the same as getting the poor and people who feel they are not part of the power structure to vote."
Nonpartisan advocacy groups including the National Congress of American Indians, which launched the initiative Native Vote 2010, have orchestrated intensive efforts to increase turnout among Native Americans for statewide and national races, driving people to polling stations and providing meals and childcare.
"It worked in 2008 but required an extraordinary level of effort," said Luna-Firebaugh.
"Election Day is like a holiday for the Navajo now," said Yazzie. "When you come to our polling places you see people hanging out, cooking, and celebrating. Unlike the outside, there is no mudslinging here."
So will they turn out this year?
"The Native American vote definitely will have an impact," said a national Democratic Party campaign strategist. "Democrats are making a targeted effort among Native Americans. It's much more field oriented than mass communication, appealing to a nation's elders."
Yazzie said the issue of state budget cuts, which could impact valuable Native American education and health care programs, are on voters' minds this fall. He said many are also concerned about state Proposition 107, which would ban affirmative action programs for state employment.
"Chris Deschene (candidate) for secretary of state is very important to many people, too," said Yazzi, who added many Navajo are energized about supporting him.
"He's somebody who Indian country loves. He's native but part of the culture. His military service is a big deal and he's a lawyer," said Luna-Firebaugh, "but in terms of turnout, I haven't seen it catch fire yet."
Candidates Seek Native American Vote
On Nov. 2, the Native American vote could also play a key role in South Dakota, where Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin is locked in a tight race with Republican state Rep. Kristi Noem. Native Americans make up at least 13 percent of eligible voters in the district.
Native American groups have also taken a prominent role in Alaska, where the Alaska Federation of Natives, the state's largest native organization, endorsed Sen. Lisa Murkowski's write-in bid for U.S. Senate, while her Democratic opponent Scott McAdams has not been endorsed by any native groups. Joe Miller has been endorsed by the Alaska Native Veterans Association.
"Within those states, because there are key positions in the senate and house and relationships with the federal government at play, you see some jockeying around, moving Native American votes certain ways and attempts to enfranchise certain populations," said Wallace.