The Navajo Nation Council passed a bill earlier this year to change the date of its primary to coincide with that of the State of Arizona. The idea, according to one of the candidates and council members we spoke to, is to maximize the Navajo vote as much as possible to support Navajo candidates, especially Congressional District 1 candidate Democratic Wenona Benally Baldenegro.
Benally is in a tough Democratic primary battle with Ann Kirkpatrick, who lost the seat in 2010 to Republican Paul Gosar.
“We want to get more Navajos to come out and vote, we also want more voter turnout for Wenona,” said Lorenzo Curley, the Navajo Nation Council member who introduced the legislation to change the primary date to August 28. Curley said the idea was to take the high turnout for the council’s elections and apply that to the typically lower turnout for state and federal elections.
“I would like to see a Navajo in Congress,” Curley said in reference to Benally, who would be the first Navajo to make it to Congress. There are, however, other Navajo candidates who may benefit from the change. “We hope that the big turnout will help those candidates that are friendly to Navajos.”
The particular makeup of Congressional District 1 is another factor in how this change will be beneficial to Benally. Navajo voters tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic, she said. What’s more, she told us that the Navajo reservation spans three of the most Democratic counties in the district, which in her words, means the Navajo vote is going to matter this year in the primary election.
“The signing of this bill is so important to my candidacy because it will increase the voter turnout on the Navajo reservation,” Benally said.
While this strategy is very pertinent from the Navajo perspective, one observer believes that Kirkpatrick’s institutional support and financial clout may be hard to overcome, even if the Navajo vote comes out in force.
“Wenona Benally Baldenegro is fighting an uphill battle against Ann Kirkpatrick. I don’t expect turnout from that demographic to put her over the top,” said Stephen A. Nuño, assistant professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University.
Polling on Navajo political opinion is not very extensive, Nuño said, and the fact that Kirkpatrick has money, Democratic backing, support from businesses and unions, means Benally has her work cut out for her. Although Benally is quick to point out that she has the endorsement of the largest union in the district, United Steelworkers of America.
“The irony is that if Baldenegro won the primary against Kirkpatrick, she may make a better competitor against the Republican candidate,” Nuño said. “But my guess is we won’t find out.”