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Tester campaign plans seven-figure push to bring out Montana tribal voters

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Montana Democrats launched a million-dollar voting initiative Monday that will work to turn out Montana’s tribal voters for Jon Tester in his toughest Senate race yet.

Native American voters have been helping the Democratic senator since he first won his seat in 2006. Tribal members make up nearly seven percent of Montana’s population, and the Democratic-leaning voting bloc could be pivotal to determining next year’s Senate majority.

The campaign, titled Big Sky Victory, plans to revive their digital outreach program from the 2018 campaign, while also employing more than 50 organizers across the state and 20 offices, including Native organizers and offices in tribal communities

In 2018, Tester’s campaign spent just more than $600,000 on a tribal voting initiative, including a sweeping Facebook ad campaign featuring members of six Montana tribes. Many of them urged tribal members to vote for Tester in their native language. In 2024, the campaign plans to double their base spend to energize the Native vote.

“Jon Tester will lead us into battle,” a member of the Fort Peck tribe said in one ad, in both the Dakota language and English, urging viewers to “vote Jon Tester on Nov. 6.”

“Big Sky Victory is the earliest, best-funded organizing program Montana has ever seen, and we’re ready to hit the ground running,” Montana Democratic Party Coordinated Campaign Director Nick Marroletti said in a statement.

There are about 60,000 eligible Native American voters in Montana, and Tester won in 2018 by just 18,000 votes.

Native voters are “hugely important to the Democratic base,” said Jim Messina, an Obama White House alum and former adviser to Tester with deep political roots in Montana. Messina referenced Tester cutting into Republican Sen. Conrad Burns’ support among Native Americans in 2006, which helped him unseat the incumbent.

“Indian Country is facing tough battles in 2024, and the outcome of this election couldn’t be more important,” said Blackfoot tribal member Cinda Burd Ironmaker, the Native vote political director for the Montana Democratic Party who has been put in charge of the initiative. “With this historic organizing effort, Native voters will have a powerful voice in 2024 and elect Jon Tester and our other Democratic candidates this November.”

Funding is a key element that is often lacking in Montana when it comes to turning out Native American voters. Some majority-Native American counties have consistently lower turnout rates than majority-white counties. Three of Montana’s largest majority-Native American counties — Glacier, Big Horn and Roosevelt — were also three of the counties with the lowest turnout rates in 2020. While the statewide average in 2020 was 81 percent, all three failed to break 70 percent.

Tribal voters face hurdles common in rural areas like long distances to drive to polling locations, a lack of formal addresses and poor cell phone service — as well as state laws that make it harder for them to vote. In 2022, a Montana judge struck down two laws passed by the state’s Legislature in 2021 on the grounds that they disproportionately hampered the ability of Native Americans to vote.

Overcoming these hurdles takes funding — something Native American voting advocates have been asking for.

“We have seen where there’s been enough money … we’ve been nearly able to close that Native to white voting gap,” says Bret Healy, a consultant with multi-state nonprofit Four Directions Native Vote. “But it takes extraordinary resources.”

The Montana GOP did not immediately comment in response to the initiative.

CLARIFICATION: This report has been updated to clarify the makeup of the initiative’s staff.