Why Democrats Lose When They Ignore the Native Vote

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It was Friday night before the midterm elections when I wandered into Bruno’s, a dive bar in south San Antonio, Tex., asking the bartenders and bar-goers if they knew any Natives in town.

“I’m a native,” one man said. “I was born here.”

“No,” I blurted, “a Native American—an Indigenous person.”

“Oh… We don’t have those in Texas,” he responded.

A few hours and a few blocks away, I went into Bar 1919, a posh speakeasy where the bartenders prefer to be called “mixologists” and don suspenders and impeccably shined wingtips.

“What’ll you have?” a young thirtysomething mixologist asked.

“Just a gin and tonic,” I said. “By the way, I’m a reporter and I’m in town covering the Native American vote.” (I made sure to add “American” this time.) “Where can I go to meet a few and ask some questions?”

The man chuckled mid-pour. “Good luck,” he said. “You’ll have better luck in New Mexico or Oklahoma. Not in Texas.”

“See, I told you,” Ramon Juan Vasquez said. I called him the next day to talk about the weird conversations I’d had. Vasquez is the executive director of the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions, a nonprofit that works to promote the Indigenous voice throughout the state. “We’re forgotten here. We’re already considered invisible.”

Then came Tuesday, election night. When the numbers came in, and showed that gubernatorial incumbent Republican Greg Abbott had soundly defeated Democrat Beto O’Rourke by more than 10 points, Vasquez wasn’t surprised, but added that Beto might have had a better shot at winning had he courted the Native vote. Vasquez acknowledged that while Natives do not make up 10 percent of the state’s population, it’s political malpractice to ignore Indigenous voters. Whether they’re enrolled with a tribe or not, urban or rural, or even more diffusely identified with the “wannabe” community, the Native population could represent a key swing constituency in tight races—or bring blowout electoral maps like the one in O’Rourke’s race closer to competitive status.

“We have the fourth-largest Indigenous population in the country. We’re a huge voting bloc,” he said. In fact, Texas has the second-largest Indigenous population in urban areas (after New York City), including three Indian reservations.

“We can swing a vote. We can swing an election,” Vasquez said. “The problem is that Democrats still don’t consider the Native American vote worth their time or money,” he added. “We just get written off. If anything, this is a call out to Texas Democrats. You’re missing the boat by ignoring a huge bloc of people all across this state.”

Melina Martinez, an Indigenous TikTok influencer, nurse, and Air Force veteran who’s lived in San Antonio for seven years, said bluntly that “there’s nothing” from either major party to court the Native vote. “They cater to the larger demographics,” she said. “They’re not considering us. It’s like we don’t exist.”

When Beto lost, Martinez said the moment was both disappointing and frightening, especially for people of color in the Lone Star State. “I foresee a path of pain and continued loss of rights for all marginalized people in Texas,” she said.

In New Mexico, it’s a whole other ball game every election season. This year, both gubernatorial candidates stumped throughout Indian country, including the Navajo Nation. Eventually, incumbent governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, soundly beat Trump-backed candidate and former weatherman Mark Ronchetti, 51.9 percent to 45.6.

Allie Young, who’s Diné and the founder of Protect the Sacred, an organization out of the Navajo Nation that works to educate the next generation of Indigenous leaders, said that, unlike their counterparts in Texas, candidates in the Land of Enchantment understand the weight and influence of the Native vote.

“First of all, [Texas] is deeply red, and second of all, they think whites, Black, and Latinx are all that make up Texas,” she said.

And according to Native leaders throughout the country, it typically takes the Indigenous community reaching out to campaigns instead of outreach from major parties to bring them on board. Indigenous people must knock on the doors of candidates to get and hold their attention.

“If we really want to live the reality of a multiracial democracy, we must begin to recognize that Native people are still here and we vote,” said Janeen Comenote, who’s Quinault, Hesquiaht, and Oglala Lakota, and the executive director of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition. “With a majority of Native people living in cities across the United States, the urban Native vote can absolutely swing tight elections.”

Ka’iulani Namauu, who’s Native Hawaiian and of Japanese descent and also works at the AITSCM in San Antonio, said Texas simply thinks it can overlook a significant swath of the state’s population. “They wrote us off as extinct long ago,” she said. “Most people here don’t even know that we exist. It’s straight-up ignorance.”

“They think we’re John Wayne leftovers,” Vasquez said, adding that this posture is rooted in an ethnic cleansing of Indigenous history.

“When you try to erase the history of the people from a physical location, that’s cultural genocide,” he said. “We’re othered. We’re considered ‘something else.’” (Indeed, during the 2020 presidential election, CNN referred to Indigenous voters as “Something Else” in an exit poll graphic.)

It’s clear that this systemic ignorance comes with a real political cost. Vasquez argues that O’Rourke failed in no small part because his team didn’t grasp the impact and reach of the Native bloc in the state. “You’re never going to have a blue wave in Texas without the Native vote,” Vasquez said.

Late on Monday in Arizona, nearly a week after the midterms, gubernatorial candidate Democrat Katie Hobbs narrowly defeated Trump-backed former newscaster Republican Kari Lake, 50.4 percent to 49.6. Incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Kelly is now the projected winner in that state’s crucial US Senate race. Indigenous voters representing 6 percent of the electorate in Arizona, and Democrats there understood that they could play a pivotal role in each of these tight statewide races.

Meanwhile, Lake had been mired in controversy since early October, when news broke that one of her campaign aides, Colton Duncan, mocked Indigenous peoples with a tweet depicting a human sacrifice with the caption, “Happy Indigenous People’s Day!”

Following Hobbs’s win after Lake appeared to be surging in the polls for weeks, Young argued that this was the sort of victory Democrats can secure “when candidates ensure that BIPOC communities feel heard and seen.”

“I said it in 2020, after I heard CNN’s John King say, ‘Arizona has Republican DNA,’ that Arizona has Indigenous DNA,” Young said. “We’re going to reclaim our power and stand in our power, and we’re going to continue to show up because they see and are intimidated by our power.”

Meanwhile, Indigenous voters and grassroots organizers in Texas hope that by the time the 2024 presidential race rolls around, candidates will have taken a page out of New Mexico’s playbook and courted the Native vote. While Indigenous peoples are the smallest racial minority in the United States, Native voters clearly can be a pivotal swing demographic in hard-fought statewide races—if only campaign professionals think to give them both attention and respect.