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How Native Americans Beat the Kochs in ‘America’s Most Competitive’ Congressional District
Cook, Rothenburg and other pundits had labeled Arizona Congressional District 1 as one of the most competitive in America, and the Koch Brothers and others poured in nearly $10 million to affect the outcome. But when the dust settled early Wednesday morning, Ann Kirkpatrick had comfortably retained her seat, trouncing state House Speaker Andy Tobin by nearly 9,000 votes.
This story is told from the perspective of Navajo County. Though it is almost exactly the size of Massachusetts, it is a relatively small part of the district -- which is actually the largest district in the U.S. that is not an entire state. The county takes in portions of the Apache reservations in the south (the size of Connecticut) and stretches into the Navajo Nation (the size of West Virginia) in the north. Between them are off-Reservation towns, with some infused with Mormon TEA Party craziness. Surrounded by the Navajo Nation is the Hopi Reservation, the size of Delaware.
One of our county supervisors, Dawnafe Whitesinger, suggested we start the campaign with a Native American issues conference. Since things are so close to a subsistence level for many people on the reservations, she felt we could only get Natives involved in the campaign if we spoke directly to issues that were most important to them. We held the conference in Winslow at La Posada, a magnificently restored historic hotel owned by one of our supporters. A hundred people showed up, including the Democratic statewide candidates, and everyone helped to identify a list of issues in the area of public safety, jobs, education, transportation and other areas.
Our next major break came when the campaign assigned Keith Brekhus to manage our local office, which was set up in Pinetop. A professional itinerant organizer from Montana, Keith had rejected jobs in Colorado because he wanted a bigger challenge. He wanted to match his skills against Arizona. His assigned area was the non-Reservation portions of Navajo and Apache County. (This will be the last state geographic comparison, I promise. Apache County is the size of Vermont.)
Keith set about collecting volunteers to make phone calls and knock on doors. It is not really rocket science. First, a computer program identifies the Democratic supporters and potential supporters. We talked to them to see if they were supporters. We then followed up to make sure they made it to the polls. A few people who said they were undecided were marked for persuasion follow up. But very little of the campaign was related to persuasion. It was almost exclusively about getting our supporters to the polls.
The White Mountain Democrats split their time between supporting Keith’s operation and working on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. On primary day, I got a call from Rich Nyman. He had recently moved to the area, had a flat tire and had called the county elections office to get help reaching the polls. They had referred him to me, as Democratic county chairman. My wife and I picked him up and took him to his precinct. He said he was interested in working on the campaign so we got him in touch with Keith. Ultimately, he knocked on 2,000 doors and became by far our most effective canvasser.
Meanwhile, we were working on our plans for the reservations. We decided to hold a series of block parties throughout the White Mountain Apache Reservation, serving food, bringing a DJ, and checking to make sure people were registered to vote. These culminated with a reservation-wide party in Whiteriver, the reservation’s capital, on Oct. 4. We had live entertainment from Apache Spirit, an amazing band. They finished with Midnight Ethelbah playing a awesome cover of Jimi Hendrix’s version of the National Anthem, and thrilling versions of songs with traditional Apache-language lyrics accompanied by electric guitars.
As the local Democrats were working with the Apaches, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began to fund a similar effort on the Navajo and Hopi reservations. We planned a major effort to get the Hopi to the county election trailer on early voting day. With food, radio and waving signs along the highway, we got 83 votes into the can. It was a lot of effort for 83 votes, but it was a 1900 percent increase from the previous early voting turnout at Hopi.
We went to the White Mountain Apache Tribal Council and asked for their endorsement of the entire Democratic ticket and the support of the tribe. We got everything we asked for, including the enthusiastic support of the entire tribal organization. One thing that really helps turnout on the Navajo Reservation is that the tribe holds its own elections on the same day as the U.S. We began to get reports that one of the Navajo candidates for president may be disqualified, postponing their election.
The DCCC stepped up with more support for early voting. Navajo villages began to put up strong early voting numbers with several hundred people visiting the county trailer when it set up in their communities. Apache early voting was also a success with more than 200 votes turned in. Apache votes are worth their weight in gold because 200 ballots will represent 190 votes for the Democratic candidate. Ultimately, on election day, the Navajos voted for their Tribal Council candidates, but voting for the Tribal President was postponed. With the help of the DCCC, we more than recovered all the votes we lost through changes in the Navajo election.
We opened an office in Winslow and the Little Colorado River Democrats began to work on voter turnout there, getting help from paid canvassers based in Flagstaff.
As the final week approached, the Koch Brothers threw an additional $1 million into our race. There was a bit of an Austin Powers aspect to this attempt at a last-minute grand gesture. For one thing, $1 million was a drop in the bucket compared to what had already been spent on the campaign. For another, Phoenix is an expensive media market, ranked 11th nationally. But most of the audience is outside the first congressional district, and the Phoenix stations do not reach the remote villages in the district. Teec Nos Pos is nearly 400 miles from the city. When the campaign scheduled Ann Kirkpatrick to visit Whiteriver on the Monday before election day, Apaches lined up to have their picture taken with Ann, a daughter of white traders on the reservation who spoke both Apache and English as a child.
On election day, we had a live remote at the polls in Whiteriver, along with a DJ and something like 1,800 hot dogs. The young volunteers from Washington, DC who had flown in and helped push our 12 shopping carts of food through the checkout line at a local supermarket. People called a special phone number to get rides to the polls and vans traveled around the reservation to bring people to the polls.
When the votes were counted, Ann Kirkpatrick carried Navajo County 13,989 to 13,041. A win of 850 votes doesn’t seem like much for all the effort, but if the Republicans are denied a victory margin in Navajo County, they are dead meat in the district as a whole. Ann won 90,161 to 81,638 district wide. The reservation village of Cibecue claimed the title as the most blue large precinct in the nation, with 97% of the vote going to Democrats. Off the reservations, we, of course, lost, but we improved the Democratic margin substantially, as much as 6 percent in many communities.
As the good news poured in from our district, we were saddened by the loss of many good Democrats nationwide, and the loss of our excellent statewide candidates in Arizona. While we won the swing district by a good margin, the voter turnout in some of our strongest Democratic districts was very low, with only about a third of the votes produced in Congressional District 1. We have to wonder what would have happened if we had started with a Hispanic issues conference, and connected with that important voter segment as well as we did with the Native Americans.
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