ADA, Okla. – Many of the 39 Native American tribes based in Oklahoma have played roles in state politics for decades, often behind the scenes. They became bigger, more outspoken players when voters approved Las Vegas-style gambling in 2004. The budgets of several major tribes ballooned with casino revenue.
This year, in their most forceful political move yet, they are wielding their considerable influence to oppose a second term for Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, himself a Cherokee citizen, who is facing a tough reelection challenge after feuding with the tribes for nearly his entire first term.
With the election just weeks away, five of the state's most powerful tribes jointly endorsed Stitt's Democratic opponent, Joy Hofmeister, the state’s public schools superintendent who has promised a more cooperative relationship with the tribal nations. It's the first time in modern history that the tribes, which often have unique or competing interests, have weighed in on a governor's race in such a public way.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen (the tribes) more active than they are today,” said Pat McFerron, a longtime Oklahoma GOP political consultant and pollster. “I think they might have flown under the radar a little bit more before.”
The effect is an unexpectedly tight race in a deep-red state that is typically an afterthought in national politics. Reflecting concerns about Stitt's vulnerability, the super PAC for the Republican Governors Association released an ad late in the campaign tying Hofmeister — who switched from the GOP to challenge Stitt as a Democrat — to President Joe Biden and rising gas prices.
Stitt’s feud with the tribes began during his first year in office when he unsuccessfully attempted to renegotiate the state’s gambling compact with the tribes. His administration then sought to overturn a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on tribal sovereignty in 2020 and drew the ire of the tribes again last year when he terminated hunting and fishing compacts between the state and tribes.
“He seems to have enjoyed this fight, relishes it and points to it as a badge of honor,” McFerron said. “It’s almost like he’s taunting them.”
The animosity between Stitt and the tribes has spilled into public view as the midterm elections draw closer. Tribal leaders have publicly assailed the governor, public meetings about law enforcement in Indian Country have turned ugly, and Stitt has faced an onslaught of dark-money attack ads.
“Any governor that postures and attempts dominion of tribes is detrimental to the tribes and the state,” said Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill.
Stitt, a multimillionaire mortgage company owner and political newcomer when he ran four years ago, has been dogged by scandals in his administration, including a sweetheart deal given to a barbecue restaurant owner that resulted in a criminal probe, improper spending of coronavirus relief funds intended for education and $2 million spent on malaria drugs during the COVID-19 pandemic that doctors had warned shouldn’t be used to treat the virus without more testing.
Stitt also has touted new laws outlawing abortion, even in cases of rape or incest, and targeting medical treatment for transgender children, both of which have turned away some moderate Republicans and independents.
For his part, Stitt says he hopes that if he’s elected to a second term, he will have improved relations with Native American tribes. Yet he insists that the Supreme Court ruling expanding tribal sovereignty has been detrimental to the state.
“I’ve told people I will not go down in history as the governor that gives my state away,” Stitt said. “A lot of people want to paint this as an anti-Indian thing. This is not. This is a pro-Oklahoma thing.”
In the leadup to the election, several nonprofit groups that focus on registering and engaging Native American voters say they've never seen this level of enthusiasm among Indian voters in statewide politics.
At a recent voter registration event at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma, home of the Chickasaw Nation, a steady stream of students, many of them Native American, signed up to register to vote at an event hosted in part by Rock the Native Vote. That's a nonprofit sponsored by the Indian Methodist Church of Oklahoma that was formed in 2002. In the parking lot were cars with tribal license plates from Cherokee, Chickasaw, Comanche, Kiowa and Otoe-Missouria tribes.
“Our goal is to get people registered, and more importantly, the Native voters within our state," said 19-year-old Devon Rain Potter, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation who was helping run a registration booth. “Once we get Native voters to show up to the polls, we can get a lot of things done."
According to the most recent U.S. Census data, Oklahoma has one of the highest percentages of Native American citizens at nearly 10% of the state's population. An additional 6.6% identify as being two or more races. That's easily enough to tip the scales in a closely contested statewide race.
And it's not just Oklahoma where Native voters are being courted and urged to turn out. The Native Organizers Alliance is targeting Indigenous voters in states across the country, including swing states with large Native American populations like Arizona, said Judith LeBlanc, the group's executive director.
Even in deep-red Texas, which has seen an increase in the American Indian population over the past 10 years, the group Democracy is Indigenous DFW drew dozens to a meet-and-greet with candidates, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke, who is challenging incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. The goal of the nonpartisan group is to increase voter engagement in the American Indian and Indigenous population in Texas.
“We are doing a wholehearted voter registration campaign,” LeBlanc said. “I believe in Oklahoma we can make a difference.”
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