Oct 18, 2014 - Native vote plays key role in Senate matchup by Brandon Ecoffey

*This article was first published in the Native Sun News

RAPID CITY –– Early on the South Dakota senate race was projected to be an easy win for Republicans. Now however with the influx of millions of dollars and the presence of a surging Democratic candidate and a crafty elder Independent statesman – South Dakota is up for grabs and its Native American population may play a huge part in deciding who represents the Mt. Rushmore State and tribes in the Senate.

Recent polling numbers have indicated that frontrunner and former Republican Governor of South Dakota, Mike Rounds, is spiraling downward as he works to stave off allegations regarding his role in a program that was designed to bring investors to South Dakota in exchange for expedited citizenship during his time as South Dakota governor.

However, the program became ripe with fraud and led to the indictment of Richard Benda who was accused of diverting $550,000 in state grant money as part of EB-5 for personal use. Before Benda could be brought to face charges he reportedly committed suicide via a gunshot wound to the stomach. During this year’s senate race Rounds has made multiple speaking miscues as has now been forced by media in the state to rephrase some of his statements that have been proven to be contradictory to what official state documents have shown Rounds’ role was in EB-5.

The scandal seems to be hitting Rounds’ campaign square in the chest if recent polling numbers are any indication. Last week a SurveyUSA poll came out and showed that although Rounds is still the favorite, the secure lead he once had is now dwindling. According to the poll Rounds leads Democratic candidate Rick Weiland by a percentage of 35% – 28% and Independent candidate and former six-term U.S. Senator, Larry Pressler, 35% – 32%.

The competitiveness of the race has drawn the attention of the national media who are now monitoring South Dakota closely as a battleground state in this year’s election where the Democrats are fighting tooth and nail to survive an attempt by the GOP to secure a majority in the Senate. The poll also indicated that if Weiland dropped out of the race Pressler would become the immediate front runner for the seat being left vacant by the retirement of Sen Tim Johnson (D). If the opposite were true and Pressler dropped out, Weiland would be running even with Rounds.

The numbers and developments in state’s like Kansas, where a Democrat dropped out of the race to clear the way for an Independent to win, has led to some in the anti-Rounds camp suggesting that one of the candidates should drop out to prevent the seat from falling into Republican hands, however there is no indication that either Pressler or Weiland intend to do just that.

Historically polling numbers in South Dakota have significantly underrepresented the power and size of the Native American voting population. In 2002 counties on the western side of South Dakota located within the borders of tribal nations led a come from behind victory for Democrats in a race that saw Sen. Tim Johnson defeat current sitting Sen. John Thune. Although Native voters in the state have significant power, voter participation on reservations has been inconsistent despite massive get out the vote efforts many of which are now underway as demonstrated at this year’s Black Hills pow wow in Rapid City.

As the eyes of the nation have begun turning to South Dakota and the big money has begun pouring in with two million more invested in the race last week designed to further weaken Rounds. National political pundits have suggested that the influx of money for Weiland accompanied with fading numbers for Rounds is setting up a perfect scenario for an upset in South Dakota.

Rick Weiland had received the endorsement of all nine tribal presidents in South Dakota early in the race but failed to secure the support of longtime journalist and founder of the Native American Journalist society, Tim Giago, who backed Pressler for the seat.

Brandon is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who earned his education at Dartmouth College. He is the managing editor of Native Sun News and a contributor to LastRealIndians.com. He has been published globally and also works as the Life and Current events editor at Native Max Magazine.

(Contact Brandon Ecoffey staffwriter2@nsweekly.com)

Copyright permission Native Sun News

Last Real Indians