Great Falls Tribune: Battle for Indian votes: Republican Daines makes inroads in traditional Democratic territory

HELENA — Republican Congressman Steve Daines has reached out to Indian Country in his first year in office, and it could help him in his bid for the U.S. Senate.

Little more than a month after beginning his first term in Congress, Daines made a statement when the conservative Republican from Bozeman invited Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote to be his guest of honor at President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.

Daines and Old Coyote formed a relationship the first weeks after the congressman took office when Old Coyote and a delegation from the Crow Tribe visited Daines at his Washington, D.C., office. Daines said he asked Old Coyote if he was related to a grade-school classmate of Daines’ in Bozeman. It turned out Daines used to walk to Longfellow Elementary School with Old Coyote’s cousin, Rachel, when they were children.

“We realized we had something in common other than politics,” Daines said. “I asked him if he would be my guest to State of the Union address, and from there we started developing further dialogue on what is needed on the Crow Reservation.”

Rural Big Horn County, where the bulk of the Crow Indian Reservation is located, did not support Daines in the 2012 election. In fact, voters there cast ballots 2-1 in favor of Daines’ Democratic opponent, former state Sen. Kim Gillan of Billings.

But despite getting electorally pummeled in the heart of Indian Country in 2012, Daines, a member of House Natural Resource Committee’s Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, has continued to reach out to tribes in a way that could help him in his bid to replace Sen. Max Baucus in the 2014 midterm election.

Shortly after taking office, Daines met with representatives from all seven of Montana’s Indian reservations, and over the past year he’s traveled and met with tribal officials across the state.

Early this month, Daines spent two days on the road traveling to the Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy’s reservations, meeting with Little Shell leaders in Great Falls to discuss federal recognition and attending the Rocky Boy Winter Celebration Pow Wow in Havre. Daines then traveled to southeastern Montana where he met with tribal officials on the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations.

With the exception of the Fort Peck Reservation in the remote northeast corner of the state, Daines has gone to every other reservation in the state.

“There are a couple ways the voice of Indian Country is heard in our state. One at the ballot box, and the second important way for their voice to be heard is for their member of Congress to make sure the door is also open,” Daines said in a recent interview. “The challenges are great on the reservations across Montana of high unemployment, health care, of law enforcement. I’m going to make sure I’m going to their country and sitting down and having a back-and-forth dialogue to make sure their voice is heard back here in Washington.”

The significance of Daines’ attention to Indian Country over the past 12 months isn’t lost on political observers.

“I think one way you can build a larger constituency moving forward is to reach out to constituencies who have historically been ignored,” Montana State University political science professor David Parker said. “Will Steve Daines do enough to change some of that? That remains to be seen.”

Parker said Daines’ outreach to Indian Country is important because it could help give Republicans more help in an area of the state they typically don’t get a lot of electoral votes.

“The places Democrats win votes in Montana is in the urban area … and in Indian Country. For Republicans to make inroads, they have to make them in urban areas or in Indian Country,” Parker said.

 

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ABOUT STEVE

Steve Daines is a fifth generation Montanan, life-long sportsman and father of four serving the people of Montana in Congress. Steve is committed to always putting Montana first as he works to bring real change to Washington and fights for common sense solutions to get our country back on track. Learn More.

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