Smith had traditionally scored very well with outlanders as he spent a great deal of time meeting out-of-state voters over the past 12 years. We were getting beaten more than two-to-one outside Oklahoma and had to find a way to mitigate that.
Our phone program identified undecided voters and soft Smith supporters, and then we bombarded them with mailers. We sent a dozen pieces of mail to both universes and called them all at least six times. Two weeks out, our polling showed the race narrowing to an uncomfortable margin for Smith—44 percent to 36 percent. That’s when the Smith camp woke up and realized they were in serious trouble.
he first move from Smith’s camp was bringing in Tulsa-based political operatives and quickly hitting us with negative mail alleging Baker was a slumlord. The mail barrage went on for each of the final seven days of the race. But by then it was too late. About half of the ballots had already been mailed back, so there simply wasn’t a large enough group still out there to be persuaded by Smith’s negative mail campaign. We knew we had caught them, but the fight was far from over.
Election night turned into election morning. We took a strong initial lead, but Smith cut into it as the mail ballots were counted. The final count had Bill John Baker defeating Smith by the slimmest of margins—just 11 votes. But that’s where things got complicated. Instead of immediately certifying the results, the head of the election council declared that she intended to have breakfast first and the room where the counting took place emptied—and no one returned.
Smith’s camp immediately called the ballot count unofficial, and we knew we had a fight on our hands. Two days later, a video camera recorded the president of the voting machine firm hired by the Cherokee Nation entering the vault that held the ballots. He exited just a few minutes later and declared that a mistake had been made—the claim was that two numbers were transposed and Smith had actually defeated Baker by seven votes.
We quickly demanded a recount, the results of which placed Baker ahead again by more than 266 votes. Constitutionally, Smith wasn’t able to ask for a second recount so the Nation’s Supreme Court—which he had appointed—conducted a fact-finding mission following a week-long trial focused on the issue of whether or not to seat Baker as chief. The review from the court’s Justices found discrepancies in the vote total again. Among the ballots that were found were 40 with whiteout over Baker’s name. They were counted as votes for Smith, and the new total put him ahead by four votes.
Another trial ensued, and by now the national media had picked up on the story and the Cherokee Nation took center stage in a national political debate. The fact that the New York Times, Washington Post and the like were following the election debacle very likely stopped any further attempts at railroading Smith back into office.
Still, seating Baker would upend decades of rule by power elites so it wasn’t surprising when the Cherokee Supreme Court declared there was no mathematical certainty in the election that had just taken place, and that the race would have to be run again. And so it was—and it was a knock-down drag-out affair.
We had bumper stickers that read, “Beat him again Bill John,” and at the Cherokee National Independence Day weekend celebration, we hired a plane to circle Tahlequah with a banner that read the same. We were fighting at every level and doing so under a much different microscope than the first time.
The biggest difference was obvious—Smith wasn’t caught by surprise the second time. His political professionals immediately began hammering voters outside of Oklahoma with mail claiming Baker would take away their right to vote if elected. It was untrue, but it was a smart move that required us to answer their charge for the first time. And then Smith pulled what he thought would be his ace in the hole—the race card. But instead of playing the way the incumbent had hoped, it exploded in the national press, angered the Bureau of Indian Affairs and brought in the U.S. Department of Justice.