GOP launches tribal ground game midterm campaign
Ground zero is Lumbee territory in North Carolina, with more targeted rural Native outreach to follow
Community organizing in purple states to get out the Native vote in tight races was the name of the game for Interior Secretary Deb Haaland before she was elected to the U.S. Congress and then appointed to President Joe Biden’s Cabinet.
Improving outreach to American Indians was an activity that Haaland honed (some say perfected) during President Barack Obama’s presidential campaigning, and it’s through this process that she developed an appetite for winning within the political arena.
Other politicians, both before and after Obama, have tried with varying degrees of success to match his and Haaland’s networking skills with tribal folks, while not wasting resources.
The Native American vote, while small, always has the potential to play an important swing role, especially in a closely divided country and in closely divided states and localities. But it’s difficult for political campaigns to know how much money and time and staff to place in American Indian-heavy areas because there’s not much research beyond anecdotes to prove that it’s worth it. More concrete data exists for how to spend capital to turn out African Americans, for instance, so many politicos choose not to explore the possibilities in Indian Country.
Republicans think they have found the evidence they need in Robeson County, North Carolina. It’s ground zero for the GOP in a new political tribal ground game, where the party is later today scheduled to open a Pembroke-based RNC Community Center.
The county and surrounding areas are not coincidentally home to the state-recognized Lumbee Tribe, with its approximately 55,000 citizens. If it were to be federally recognized, it would be the largest such tribe east of the Mississippi River, by population.
GOP U.S. Reps. David Rouzer (NC-07) and Dan Bishop (NC-09) are expected to be on hand for the opening, as are national leaders from the Republican National Committee and Lumbee citizens.
Officials could not say how much the center will cost, but they did say that it is a “major investment” by the RNC. “We can’t specify on rent and such, but the center will have a dedicated member of the Lumbee Tribe working on engagement and organizing events and trainings for the community,” a spokesperson said.
Until 2014, Lumbees, like many other American Indians, were Democratic voters, Jarrod Lowery, a former council member with the tribe, told Indigenous Wire.
“Between 2012 and 2014, the Republicans finally decided, ‘Hey, let’s go to Robeson County. Let’s start talking to folks,’” recalled Lowery, a former Marine.
And what did the GOP find there?
“The Lumbee people have always been conservative in nature; we are working-class folk,” Lowery said. “We really want to be left alone, and we have a healthy distrust of the government, because the government has systematically done horrible things to our people over hundreds of years…. We also have a deep Christian tradition.”
After this increased Republican outreach, the tide rapidly turned, culminating in a shift that surprised political scientists in 2016, when Robeson County was called for President Donald Trump at 50.8 percent in his election versus Hillary Clinton. It was the first time a Republican had ever won the county, party officials said.
Trump himself noticed the results, GOP leaders shared, especially because many in the political chattering classes posited that Clinton might be able to pull off a win in the battleground state at large. (She had devoted a considerable amount of resources to doing so.)
Thus, in 2020, Trump and his campaign increased their attention and spending on the rural, largely Native county. The former president even ended up making a rally appearance there – just before the general election – during which the always transactional leader promised to support federal recognition for the Lumbees if they turned out for him.
And turn out for Trump they did – this time with 58 percent of the vote, helping him to carry the state, even though he ultimately lost the election to President Joe Biden by a wide margin in both the Electoral College and popular vote.
Despite Trump’s loss, the lesson of winning the Lumbee vote was not lost on GOP leaders, and they now want to capitalize on it, making it a regular occurrence, and not one that happens only when Trump is on the ticket.
“One of the challenges we have this particular election cycle is turning Trump voters into Republican voters – and making sure that the gains that we made in Robeson County over the last four or five years are gains that we can continue to make,” North Carolina’s GOP Chairman Michael Whatley told Indigenous Wire.
“North Carolina is a true purple state; we are a battleground state from top to bottom,” Whatley said. “The Native American community is absolutely pivotal in the races that we’ve got here, and we need them to be a part of our bloc of voters.”
The new community center – the first Native American office that the RNC is opening anywhere in the U.S. this election cycle – is the crown jewel of the approach. Officials said that it will serve as a place of Republican-minded engagement, a hub for grassroots organization, and a meeting hall where people can get together to strategize and message. It is intended to be a permanent presence in the community, they said – one that will not disappear after the midterms of 2022.
“When [RNC Chair] Ronna McDaniel first explained to me the concept of the community centers they were building throughout the country, we saw it as an opportunity,” Whatley said. “For us to be able to open up this community center and to continue work on building that relationship that we have with the Lumbees is particularly important to me, as well as to Ronna and the RNC.”
Two main areas Whatley pointed to as reasons for the strong Lumbee turnout for Trump were his economic policies and his support for their federal recognition.
Working to create policy that will help Natives get themselves out of poverty, as well as pressing for Lumbee federal recognition will continue to be the main platform points for Republicans in this region, Whatley said. He noted that when he previously served as chief of staff for Sen. Elizabeth Dole in the early 2000s, achieving federal recognition for the tribe was a focus for her team then, and it has been a goal for many Republican leaders and the tribe over several decades.
“It takes time, but the way that you get it done is by having that big coalition – a big, bipartisan coalition, which is absolutely essential,” Whatley added. “I’m glad that the Republicans have spearheaded that effort.”
Whatley hopes that the Lumbees will finally be able to gain federal recognition under the Biden administration.
He and other Republican leaders are also hopeful that the Robeson County experiment can provide a model for outreach to Native Americans nationwide in rural areas that might tip the scales in their favor, in close races especially.
“The model over the course of this year is certainly going to prove itself out – that wherever you plant a flag, and you say that you want to have a permanent presence in a community and build relationships – that’s exactly what we need to be doing as a Republican Party,” Whatley said.
At the same time, Whatley is well aware that Robeson County is unique, with its tri-racial composition and a tribe pining for federal recognition. But Indian Country in general is unique, he noted, it just takes time to understand what issues engage various communities.
“My measure for success is going to be the relationships that we’re going to build,” Whatley said.
Lowery, who previously unsuccessfully ran in 2018 for a North Carolina House seat against a five-term incumbent, said that the development of the community center means that he and his people are being seen and heard.
“As a Native person who has always felt like we’ve been overlooked – left behind at times, especially being Lumbee – to have the RNC, or any political party, to invest their time, money, effort into our community, to engage our community – it means a lot,” Lowery said. “It means that we are no longer overlooked; we are no longer silent.”
“Republicans probably haven’t been doing well with minority people since the 1960s, because they (Republicans) just didn’t show up,” he added. “If Republicans can take this template and go into tribal communities across the country and say they want to know their issues – and if they can embrace the importance of tribal sovereignty… yes, Republicans, I believe, will gain votes from tribal citizens all across the country.”
Expect Lowery himself to run for state office once again, this time with the experience of the importance of relationship building on all levels under his belt.
“I think that’s in my future,” he said with a chuckle. “I love my community. I really do. If I can add to the legacy of our people standing up and being leaders, I want to do that.”
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