Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) is building relationships with Montana’s Native American leaders that could help him win a Senate seat in 2014.
Daines has met with the leaders of Montana’s seven federally recognized tribes, developing a particularly close bond with the head of the Crow tribe, Darrin Old Coyote.
Daines, who sits on the House Natural Resources Committee and its Indian Affairs subcommittee, sat down with tribal leaders shortly after he was sworn in to Congress. When he met Old Coyote, the Crow Tribe’s chairman, they found they had a connection — Daines had grown up down the street from Old Coyote’s cousin.
“It started the beginning of a relationship there that's more than just politics,” Daines said.
He invited Old Coyote to be his guest of honor at the State of the Union speech, and has had him back to Washington, D.C. to testify on the tribe’s developing its coal resources.
Daines has also worked with the Salish tribe on timber management, and was convinced by tribal leaders to split with much of his party to back a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that gives tribes new authority to tackle sexual abuse on their reservations.
“I've become good friends with him,” Old Coyote said of Daines. “It's very welcoming and very refreshing to have a friend in D.C. knowing your interest as a tribe and nation, your concerns and issues are being addressed and prioritized.”
That outreach stands in contrast to his predecessor, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.). Tribal leaders complained that Rehberg kept his distance from them during his decade in Congress.
“There were no questions and not much help from Rehberg,” Old Coyote said.
Daines says the outreach isn’t about politics — “they can sense whether it's just about surface politics, a quick photo op, or real caring” — but backing from the tribes could tip the scales in the open Senate race.
Native Americans broke for Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) over Rehberg by an overwhelming margin in 2012, pushing Tester to a four-point victory.
Turnout among Native Americans tends to plunge in midterm elections — it dropped by 60 percent between 2008 and 2010 — and without a big turnout on the reservations for the Democratic nominee, it will be hard for Democrats to hold retiring Sen. Max Baucus’s (D-Mont.) seat.
Tribal leaders say they like Montana Lieutenant Gov. John Walsh, the likely Democratic nominee, but they don’t yet know him well.
“We'll see how he does,” Fort Belknap reservation President Tracy King told The Hill. “He seems like another good man.”
And while Daines is making inroads with the tribes, he also diverges from them on some issues.
Daines has voted to repeal ObamaCare, which includes permanent authorization of the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act. It also hurts that his party was blamed for the federal shutdown, since many of the jobs on reservations are government-related.
“His votes against the Affordable Care Act are going to haunt him,” said James Melbourne, the Fort Peck Tribe’s former health director.
Democrats in Montana say they will work aggressively to win the Native American vote.
“The Democratic Party is committed to running a strong ground game in communities statewide, highlighting Steve Daines' irresponsible shutdown and the damage it has caused Montana families and businesses, particularly in Indian Country,” says Montana Democratic Party Spokesman John Bacino.
But some are nervous that Daines is making inroads with the tribal constituency.
"The political landscape for the Senate race is very difficult in 2014 for the Democratic candidate, especially with regard to the Native vote,” said one Montana-based Democratic strategist.
“You have a Republican candidate who has read the Native vote playbook that Denny Rehberg never read.”