Campaign

Influential tribe set to play key role in NC election

PEMBROKE, N.C. - Republicans and Democrats are working in a last-ditch effort to turn out voters from North Carolina's Lumbee Tribe ahead of the critical special election in the 9th District.

The tribe, the largest east of the Mississippi, could play a deciding factor in the race, which is among the first tests of the political landscape heading into the 2020 elections. Internal polls show Democrat Dan McCready and Republican state Sen. Dan Bishop in a dead heat ahead of Tuesday's vote, and both sides concede that the race will likely be decided by a razor-thin margin.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is making a last-minute, five-figure investment in a get-out-the-vote ad targeting the Lumbee community, a committee official told The Hill.

And McCready has swung through Robeson County, a decidedly rural county in the southern-most reaches of the 9th District where much of the Lumbee community is based, in the days leading up to the election.

The Lumbee, a tribe of about 55,000 enrolled members, have historically cast their votes for Democratic candidates. But President Trump carried Robeson County by roughly 4 points in 2016, and Bishop and his allies argue that the Lumbees have become more inclined to vote Republican.

"They like President Trump, they have very traditional conservative values, they are opposed to abortion on demand, they are serious about the protection of the Second Amendment, they support the president in terms of regaining control of our southern border," Bishop said in an interview with The Hill.

"Those are all things that I agree with and support and will aggressively pursue, and Dan McCready will not take a position that's consistent with what they believe."

One Republican official said that if the Lumbees break for Bishop in the same way they broke for Trump in 2016, they may end up being an "ace in the hole" for his campaign.

Bishop said that he has "spent more time in Robeson County than anyone else." But McCready has also had a frequent presence there - his most recent visit to Pembroke, the seat of the Lumbee tribal government, was on Saturday - and Democrats are quick to note that McCready carried Robeson County by more than 15 points in last year's election.

The tribe has sought full federal status, which would allow it to receive federal benefits and to govern itself as a sovereign Native American nation, since the late 19th century. A 1956 federal law designated the Lumbee as a native people but stopped short of giving the tribe full recognition. Both Bishop and McCready have said they would back a measure to extend federal recognition to the Lumbees.

Attempts to grant recognition have failed over questions about their Native American heritage.

"They've faced a great injustice of not having full federal recognition for more than a century," McCready told reporters at a rally in Charlotte on Friday, adding that he made about "75 trips out to Robeson County" to meet with the Lumbees over the course of his campaign.

Native American communities already face voting hurdles. Polling places are often difficult to reach, and traditional get-out-the-vote efforts have long struggled to include them.

There's a sweeping nonpartisan effort to turn out members of the Lumbee community. Four Directions, a voting rights advocacy group for native communities, has partnered with the Lumbee Tribe to help get out the vote ahead of Election Day.

"A lot of people around here have been cut out of democracy for a long time," said Donna Semans, an organizer with Four Directions, who is herself an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. She was among three workers canvassing neighborhoods in Pembroke on Sunday.

Workers with Four Directions have spent weeks knocking on doors throughout Robeson County and taking Lumbee tribal members to early-voting locations. Bret Healy, a consultant for the group, said that since early voting began on Aug. 23, Four Directions had brought more than 1,600 Lumbees to the polls.

That number may end up being significant. The last vote in the 9th District, which was voided earlier this year after state officials uncovered a sweeping ballot fraud scheme, showed McCready trailing his Republican challenger at the time, Mark Harris, by just 905 votes.

Part of the challenge in turning out voters, in general - and Lumbee voters, in particular - owes to the timing of the election, multiple activists and political operatives said. Balloting in the race is set for Tuesday, nearly two months before regularly scheduled municipal elections throughout North Carolina, including in Robeson County.

"A third, or more than 30 percent, weren't even aware that there was a Sept. 10 election coming up," Healy said. "So even with all the massive TV advertising, there's no doubt a lot of direct mail hitting mailboxes and whatnot. Simply, folks aren't used to voting in September."

Four Directions' efforts are nonpartisan - "I can't tell you who to vote for," Alicia Jacobs, a field worker, said when a woman asked her during a Sunday canvass in Pembroke which candidate the group was supporting. But Healy noted that Republican-leaning Native Americans tend to turn out to the polls in higher numbers without the help of a get-out-the-vote program, suggesting that the group's efforts may end up turning out more Democratic-leaning voters.

"As a practical matter, at least, based on our experience in areas that look like this from an economic-challenge standpoint, it's unlikely that those votes are heavily going to the Republican candidate," Healy said.

Regardless of the results on Tuesday, that the 9th District election may come down to the Lumbee vote gives the tribe some added leverage, Healy said.

"This is not a political party issue," he said. "This is a Native American rights and sovereignty issue."

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