Kevin Killer wasn’t intending to block a Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate. He was just sick of looking at his nameplate every day at the South Dakota state legislature: “Shannon,” it read, referring to one of the counties in the 27th district, which he represents. The county was named after Peter C. Shannon, a judge who took part in the corrupt and coercive process of carving up the enormous Great Sioux Reservation in the late 19th century. He wasn’t exactly a friend to the Oglala Lakota people.
“Since the state’s founding, a legislator has been representing us and representing Shannon County,” says Killer. That isn’t right, he thought. So Killer organized a referendum to change the name from Shannon County to Oglala Lakota County.
Little did Rep. Killer know that he would set in motion what could be the butterfly-effect issue of the 2014 electoral season. The referendum, which will be on the ballot in Shannon County on November 4, has helped spark a voter registration and early voting drive so large that it may actually tip the balance of power in the statewide Senate race, and thus which party controls the U.S. Senate.
In a political season that seems to be leaning heavily Republican, a surprise horse race has emerged in South Dakota between Republican candidate and former governor Mike Rounds; the barnstorming, guitar-strumming Democrat Rick Weiland; and Larry Pressler, who was a Republican senator and congressman, but who is now running as a moderate independent. The three-candidate race is close and unpredictable, with wildly inconsistent polls, a flood of new advertising money from the national parties and PACs, and renewed interest in an immigration and corruption scandal from Round’s gubernatorial days.
South Dakota has always been a bit of a political wild card, a seemingly dead-red conservative state whose prairie populism helped elect former Sen. George McGovern—the stridently anti-Vietnam War Democratic nominee for president in 1972—and former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. When Democrats win, it tends to be (incredibly) close. In Daschle’s first race for Congress in 1978, he won by a mere 139 votes. In 2002, Democratic Sen. Tom Johnson—whose seat is now up for grabs with his impending retirement—won by a bit more than 500.
Another defining trait of Democratic victories: the Native American vote. South Dakota is home to nine Indian reservations, and while Natives make up only 9 percent of the state’s 845,000 residents, they vote liberal in numbers that would make a Harlem Democrat jealous. Shannon County has had the highest percentage vote for the Democratic presidential nominee of any county in America three elections running, pulling an astounding 93 percent for Obama in 2012.
“The Native American vote has traditionally been a part of Democratic strategy,” says South Dakota Republican political analyst Harry Christianson. “When [Democrats] win, it is because of phenomenal get-out-the-vote operations on reservations, and the Native vote will make a difference if the race is close.”
Neither the Democrat Weiland nor independent Pressler have such sophisticated operations this year, but Killer and his campaign to change Shannon County’s name to Oglala Lakota County is doing that for them on Pine Ridge, the state’s largest reservation. Just to get on the ballot, Killer and his allies had to gather signatures from 15 percent of the enrolled voters in the county (only 35 percent voted in the 2010 election), pulling in more than 1,800 signatures total. Along with the signatures, the campaign helped push voter-registration efforts and awareness in the community, especially among young voters.
The young got really excited about the referendum when they learned more about Shannon’s biography, Killer says. One of the judge’s commissions made five-year-old schoolchildren sign petitions to sell tribal land and threatened their elders with violence and eviction if they didn’t sign, according to research from Killer’s office. In recent weeks, Killer estimates, he and his colleagues have registered 750 new voters, and according to the county offices, there were 417 early votes as of October 23—this in a county where only 2,628 people voted in 2010.
Veteran Republican analyst Christianson still thinks the state will coalesce around Rounds on Election Day to increase the chance of a Republican majority in the Senate, even if voters are skeptical of their former governor. But North Dakota Republicans were saying the same thing two years ago when Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp pulled off a surprise victory with a big assist from Native voters who were undercounted in the polls.
As for Killer, while he’d certainly be happy to see a Democratic (or independent) Senate win, he says the county name change itself would be the most important victory for the reservation. “For the first time, [young people] are seeing how an idea can turn into law,” says Killer. “Something that they can do to really make a change in their lifetime. Not a lot of people can say that.”