The race to head the Cherokee Nation isn’t typically a contest favorable to the use of more traditional campaign techniques—new media, direct mail and phones. So the question for our team upon deciding to take on the challenge of unseating a 12-year incumbent this past year was whether modern campaign tactics could work in a storied and somewhat closed political culture.
The short answer is yes. But it meant breaking 30 years of tight control from an insular group, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, and nine months of focus on a project undertaken on a whim.
The goal was to unseat Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith, who was running for another term as head of America’s largest Native American tribe. We knew from the start that it would be no easy task. Smith was an attractive, charismatic politician who understood how to use the mechanism and resources of government to completely control the Cherokee Nation—and to maintain a stranglehold on the tribe’s election process. Previous races against the chief ended in lopsided losses as vendors and insiders contributed the $5,000 max to the incumbent and challengers were left with no avenue for contributions.
The imbalance was easy to understand. As chief, Smith named the tribe’s Supreme Court, the election commission, the attorney general, the secretary of state and the treasurer. The Nation’s Council of the tribe must approve the appointments, but Smith had long ago gained control of that body. In his position, he single-handedly controlled an annual budget approaching $1 billion, nine casinos and a myriad of businesses. Arguably, chief of the Cherokee Nation is a better job than Oklahoma governor.
But this past year, it was a two-term Cherokee councilman named Bill John Baker who decided to take on Smith. He had the ability to self-fund—to the tune of about $200,000—making him the first serious opponent Smith had faced. And the initial decision to assemble a full campaign team proved critical.
Baker had a friend in one-time Oklahoma congressional hopeful Kalyn Free. EMILY’s List had previously backed Free as a challenger to Rep. Dan Boren. She agreed to help Baker and phoned me. We decided to bring on John Jameson of Winning Connections to handle phones and Merv Wampold of Wampold Strategies to develop a direct mail program. Carey Crantford—a pollster out of South Carolina—had experience working with Native American tribes, so we hired him to run a baseline poll. I handled communication and strategy. A rising star named Jonathan Levy was the manager.
Now, I’m a media consultant but buying TV made absolutely no sense from a strategic point of view. In addition to phones and mail, we figured some new media and radio could also work given the environment. Underpinning our game plan was the fact that Baker is smart as a whip and he proved to be one of the few clients I’ve had in my 25 years who completely placed the strategy in the hands of his consultants. He did not second guess us once.
he Cherokee Nation sits on 14 counties in central Oklahoma. About 150,000 Cherokees live in and around those 14 counties and another 150,000 are dispersed all across the globe. Any enrolled Cherokee—18 and older—who has registered with the Nation can vote, regardless of location.
To be considered a Cherokee, one must have an ancestor on the Dawes Rolls—the official rolls of Native American tribe members created in the late 19th Century. Baker is fond of saying that all Cherokees come from one fire. But there are family rivalries that date to well before Oklahoma became a state.
The results of our baseline poll were daunting—Smith’s approval rating was 67 percent and his reelect was 53 percent, most of which was very solid. The first horserace question had Smith leading Baker 52 percent to 10 percent, and more than 65 percent of Cherokee voters thought the Nation was moving in the right direction. Given those numbers as a starting point, I’d usually advise a challenger to save his time and money, but in this case our goal was to surprise the establishment with modern tactics and a message-driven campaign. So we pressed forward.
Given the early polling, we knew that our message would have to be spot on to work. And we had to admit that things were going well or risk losing credibility. Our message required some nuance: “Taking the Nation from Good to Great.”
The initial poll showed jobs was the number one issue followed by healthcare, despite the fact that Cherokees in all of Oklahoma’s 14 counties essentially received free healthcare already. We pledged to spend more on healthcare, adding coverage for dentures and eyeglasses, which the current health plan did not provide and Smith had previously vetoed. When it came for how to pay for the added expense, we seized on a tried and true symbol of excess and privilege—a private plane owned by the Cherokee Nation.
The business wing of the Nation—Cherokee Nation Business—owned a King Air twin prop plane that was used often by Smith for business, and for some pleasure. We found that 53 percent of people were “very concerned” the Nation was spending money on a private plane, and 23 percent were “somewhat concerned.” We knew it was a potential winning issue.
Following a couple of bio pieces we mailed to voters introducing them to Baker and his business and family background, we started hammering folks with mailers demanding the plane be sold and the proceeds distributed to health clinics.
We followed it with an effort to identify and contact every Cherokee voter we could find, no matter where in the United States they lived. Jameson’s firm started working the phones to do just that. A Facebook ad campaign brought some 2,000 people to our campaign page, and we hit Smith with a web video demanding the plane be grounded.
But even after the start of a solid outreach effort, anchored by a message we were confident would help bring Smith back down to earth, the incumbent still wasn’t taking us seriously. He had his tribal employees respond to the attacks with lengthy and poorly crafted mail pieces and newspaper ads.
By the time our next poll came back, we saw progress. Smith was leading 45 percent to 25 percent. In a matter of weeks, we had managed to grow by 15 percentage points, while Smith had dropped by six points. Most importantly, he was a well-known incumbent under 50 percent and we managed to bring his job approval down from 64 percent to 56 percent.
It was a great early indicator. It was also telling that a percentage of people believe he was doing a good job, but were not saying they would vote for him. To us, it was a clear sign that he had a personality problem with many in the Cherokee Nation.
Following the second poll, we saw an indication that we needed to shift focus a bit. We began running two campaigns—one directed at those in the 14 counties encircling Tahlequah, and a second to all “outlanders,” or out-of-state voters. Understandably, the jobs issue didn’t quite resonate as much with voters out of state, so we tweaked the message. To the outlanders, our message essentially became a question: Can you name one thing Chad Smith has done for your family? We then promised to beef up the Nation’s college scholarship program so any Cherokee could earn a college degree.
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.
At issue were some 2,600 African-Americans known as “Freedmen.” They had been members of the Cherokee tribe as the original treaty stated that slaves of Cherokees would be registered. More than ten years ago, Cherokees held a referendum and by more than three-to-one voted to kick the Freedmen out of the tribe. The only caveat was that the Freedmen were allowed to remain until a lawsuit they had filed was fully considered. That hadn’t happened until just two weeks before the second election when the Cherokee Supreme Court officially ruled the Freedmen out of the tribe, leaving them without votes in the second contest between Smith and Baker.
The politics of it was obvious to us—the Freedmen supported Baker and revoking their votes gave Smith about a 1,200 vote advantage. The Freedmen s ued in federal court and Judge Henry Kennedy of the D.C. District Court ruled the Freedmen could vote. It was a victory for Baker, but Smith was just beginning to use it against us.
On the campaign trail, Smith immediately tied Baker to the BIA (Bossing Indians Around is how the acronym is typically stated in Native American country). Smith was trying to frame the election as his standing up for Cherokees and Baker standing with the black Freedmen.
We decided to redouble our efforts in the Baker camp, and when absentee and early voting opened we had already picked up more than 1,000 ballots by hand. This was where the work we had put in during the first race really paid off. With a targeted campaign based on phone IDs, volunteers knocked on 3,000 doors—twice. We also figured we had to win the election by more than the 1,200 Freedmen votes, so our mail became more direct and biting.
Smith pounded the race issue in the 14 counties and continued claiming to outlanders that we would abolish their right to vote. We hit him for being out of touch, not sharing Cherokee values, refusing to spend $40,000 to refurbish cemeteries that dated back to the “Trail of Tears,” and of course the airplane. All of our mail to the outlanders was negative and comparative, as we had to stop Smith from running up huge numbers in that arena.
Given what had happened in the first contest, we also demanded the Carter Center monitor the election. The organization, founded by former President Jimmy Carter, monitors elections in fraud-prone locations across the globe. The Carter Center has only monitored two elections ever in the United States. Both were for the Cherokee Nation.
In the end, Baker won the second contest by almost 1,700 votes, defeating Smith 54 percent to 46 percent in a race that saw a record turnout. Smith balked—again—challenging the results, but this time the Cherokee Supreme Court unexpectedly ruled Baker the winner. He was sworn in five hours later.
More than 30 years of power was broken with a clear message, a solid and well-thought out phone program and a mail effort that ensured the race would be fought on our terms right from the start. The race for chief of the Cherokee Nation isn’t one you would have thought could be run with a modern campaign game plan, but we suspect it will be from here on out.
Dane Strother is president of Strother Strategies, a D.C.-based Democratic consulting firm.